Executive producer Frank Spotnitz discusses the real-life origins of hostage thriller Ransom – commissioned by CBS in the US, Canada’s Global, German broadcaster RTL and French network TF1 – while star Luke Roberts describes the life-and-death stakes in play for his character, negotiator Eric Roberts.
Ransom is produced by Entertainment One (eOne), Sienna Films and Wildcat Productions, and distributed by eOne.
The BBC last week renewed its commitment to Steven Knight’s acclaimed 1920s gangster series Peaky Blinders with a two-season order.
But that was actually just one of a number of scripted announcements from the UK public broadcaster. There was also a renewal for The A Word, based on an Israeli format from Keshet, and a raft of new series and single drama announcements.
The most high profile of the new productions is Us, an adaptation of David Nicholls’ most recent novel of the same name. The book will be adapted by Nick Payne and produced by Drama Republic.
As for the single dramas, Tony Jordan is writing a show about Barbara Windsor, the Cockney actress who came to fame in the Carry On films and then became a regular fixture on EastEnders. Entitled Babs, the drama will be produced by BBC Studios in association with Red Planet Pictures.
Windsor said: “Although it’s been spoken about in the past to do my life story, it wasn’t until two years ago, when I was approached by the brilliant writer Tony Jordan and the BBC, that I knew this was the right time, and undoubtedly the only person I felt knew me well enough to tell my story. Tony knows the real me and what makes me tick, and I was particularly taken by the way he wants to tell my tale, which is not in the way people will expect. Tony certainly has captured the moments of my life that have made me who I am today. I am honoured and excited that Tony and the BBC have commissioned this.”
Jordan added: “The opportunity to tell the story of the amazing Barbara Windsor was too good to miss. I think people will be surprised there’s a lot more to her than just the Carry On Films and EastEnders. She was starring in movies and was a star of the theatre long before any of those things came along. In the Sixties, she was nominated for a Bafta for her work in the film Sparrows Can’t Sing, and a Tony award after appearing on Broadway. There’s a reason that, as a nation, we’ve all taken Barbara to our hearts. I think it is because she’s always been one of us, never forgetting where she came from – that combination of someone in the business with the highest level of professionalism, but without the airs and graces to go with it. She’s a national treasure and one of the most remarkable women I’ve met.”
For BBC2, there will be an adaptation of Sathnam Sanghera’s memoir The Boy with the Topknot, produced by Parti Productions and Kudos. Set in Wolverhampton, the series tells the humorous, touching and emotional story of a second-generation Indian growing up in Britain, exploring how he juggles his family, love life and career.
Sanghera commented: “I’m delighted that The Boy with the Topknot is being adapted for screen. Delighted and a little trepidatious. The latter because the book is a personal exposition of my childhood and family, and delighted because it’s a story I want people to know about and understand. I feel confident the BBC and Parti, along with Kudos, will handle the themes explored in the book with great warmth and sensitivity, because ultimately my family’s story is one of hope.”
Charlotte Moore, the BBC’s acting director of TV, said: “Following BBC Drama’s tremendous start to the year, it is clear audiences are looking for greater ambition and high quality. So I’m announcing a mix of contemporary, provocative pieces and surprising stories, with three new titles and two returning series.”
On the streaming front, Amazon is set to launch two new pilots on June 17. The first, which has been discussed since late last year, is The Last Tycoon, based on F Scott Fitzgerald’s last unfinished novel. Starring Matt Bomer, the show will be available in multiple markets including the US, UK, Germany, Austria and Japan (it was previously a movie starring Robert De Niro in 1976). The other new pilot is The Interestings, based on the book by Meg Wolitzer. This one stars Lauren Ambrose and tells the story of a group of summer-camp friends over the course of their lives.
Hulu, meanwhile, has teamed up with ITV in the UK on a new series called Harlots, which is set in the world of the 18th century London sex trade. The eight-parter, produced by Monumental Pictures, will air on ITV Encore in the UK and stars Samantha Morton as a woman struggling to reconcile her roles as a mother and a brothel owner.
Harlots is written by Moira Buffini, based on an original idea by her and Alison Newman. “In 1760s London, there were brothels on every corner run by women who were both enterprising and tenacious,” said Monumental co-founder Alison Owen. “History has largely ignored them, but their stories are outrageous, brutal, humorous and real.”
The show is the latest in a line of originations involving ITV Encore, others including The Frankenstein Chronicles, Midwinter of the Spirit and Houdini & Doyle. The show will be distributed outside the US and UK by ITV Studios Global Entertainment.
Other streaming news this week included the announcement that the European Commission may impose a 20% local-content quota on streaming services like Amazon and Netflix. The move is aimed at preserving cultural diversity and supporting European production. On the face of it, this is good news for European producers, though it has the potential to increase the streamers’ content costs.
Netflix, which has recently started investing in original European content, is unhappy about the move, saying it would distort the streaming market and adversely impact on its personalised recommendation service. It added: “Rigid numerical quotas risk suffocating the market for on-demand audiovisual services. An obligation to carry content to meet a numerical quota may cause new players to struggle to achieve a sustainable business model. The focus should be on incentivising the production of European content and not imposing quotas.”
In Asia, Fox Networks Group Asia has signed a deal with Linmon Pictures to broadcast Chinese romantic drama series To Be a Better Man to viewers across the region. The show will air on general entertainment service Star Chinese Channel the same day as in China.
The 42-part series follows the story of a tough Chinese chef working at a three-star Michelin restaurant in the US. After his best friend is killed in a car accident, he returns to China with his remains and gets embroiled in various problems. To Be a Better Man was written by Li Xiao and directed by Zhang Xiao Bo.
Finally, there was more bad news this week for US movie spin-off projects. After Rush Hour and Damien were shut down last week, Limitless has become the latest casualty. This CBS show, spun off from the Bradley Cooper movie of the same name, started well but faded badly in the second half of its run.
Next autumn in the US will see the launch of new spin-offs from Training Day, Lethal Weapon, The Exorcist, Time After Time and Frequency. Presumably if this batch fares as badly as the class of 2015/2016 then the networks will need to have a rethink.
Mexican star Danna Paola’s decision to return to the small screen after a five-year absence is another coup for the flourishing international television business, says Michael Pickard.
She was the young star who turned her back on television to focus on a career in music and theatre.
But after a five-year absence from the small screen, Mexican actor Danna Paola is set to return in a new telenovela produced by US Spanish-language broadcaster Telemundo.
Telemundo Studios confirmed this week that Paola(pictured above with Telemundo’s Joshua Mintz) will star in the forthcoming Quién es Quién (aka Who’s Who). She will play Paloma, a strong and feisty young mother who, together with her son, has found success in life in the face of adversity.
“I am honoured to be part of the Telemundo family, and to have the chance to play the lead in a project of this magnitude,” Paola said. “I know viewers will love Quién es Quién. They’ll get to see me play a unique character with lots of nuances – someone very different from the roles I’ve played before.”
The actor made her name by starring in around a dozen telenovelas as a young girl, including Maria Belen, which gave Paola her first leading role at the age of six. She played a girl whose adoptive parents are killed in a car crash and she becomes the heir to her family’s property, much to the anger of her evil uncle.
Roles in Amy, la Niña de la Motel Azul (Amy, the Girl with the Blue Schoolbag) and Atrévete a Soñar (Dare to Dream) cemented her early stardom, while she was also tapped as one of the voice stars of the Disney movie Tangled in Hispanic America.
By 2011, Paola began to focus on her music career after releasing several solo albums and also recording the soundtracks to many of the children’s telenovelas in which she starred.
Then in 2013 she won the coveted role of Elphaba in the first Spanish-language version of smash-hit musical Wicked. She is currently on stage appearing in Hoy No Me Puedo Levantar, which is touring around Mexico.
Speaking to Huffpost Voces, Paola said she was “happy and excited” to be returning to the small screen.
“I’m sure you will love it,” she said. “I think Quién es Quién came at the right time in my life.
“(Telemundo) is a network with prestige and credibility, and I liked the project,” Paola said of her decision to join the novela. “When I spoke to Telemundo about the soap and my character, and after discussing it with my family and my management team, we decided it was the right project and I’m very happy. It’s a way of transcending borders and to reach new audiences both in acting and music.”
The actor said Paloma is “a character with many shades,” adding: “(Viewers) are going to see something different from what I’ve done before. She’s a character that will allow me to explore various facets, and I will be surrounded by a great team.”
The signing is a fantastic coup for Telemundo, which is suitably excited about the new addition to their cast list. Paola brings with her a legion of loyal fans – she has 2.53 million followers on Twitter and another 1.1 million followers on Instagram – who will no doubt tune in to the series, while keeping up to date with the show across social media.
Filming for Quién es Quién, which is an adaptation of Chilean telenovela Amores de Mercado, will take place in LA and Miami.
“We are thrilled to welcome Danna Paola to the network,” said Joshua Mintz, executive VP of scripted programming and general manager at Telemundo Studios.
“Her participation is another example of our continued commitment to offer the audience the best productions featuring top-calibre artists.”
Her childhood stardom notwithstanding, Paola’s return to television represents another feather in the cap of international drama as it continues to attract star names from the world of film, theatre and music. And with Paola headlining the series, Telemundo can expect to find international broadcast partners for Quién es Quién around the world.
Two members of the creative team behind German Cold War thriller Deutschland 83 have revealed all about working between television markets in Germany and the US. Michael Pickard reports.
On the back of scripts mostly written by Anna Winger alone, Deutschland 83 became the first ever German-language series to air on a US network when it debuted earlier this year – yet the co-creator says she prefers working alongside other writers.
The show, which is produced by UFA Fiction for RTL, is described as a suspenseful coming-of-age story set against the real culture wars and political events of Germany in the 1980s.
The story follows Martin Rauch (Jonas Nay, pictured above) as a 24-year-old East Germany native who is sent to the West as an undercover spy for the Stasi foreign service. Hiding in plain sight in the West German army, he must gather the secrets of NATO military strategy.
“The whole development was extremely condensed,” explains Winger, an American novelist who worked alongside her husband, German producer Joerg Winger, to bring the series to life. “I started writing the pilot just before Christmas 2013 and we finished shooting just before Christmas 2014. One year, soup to nuts.
“German TV isn’t set up financially to support an American-style writers room, where writers work full-time on a show. Four other writers came on after I had written the pilot and the season arc, all friends: Steve Bailie, Andrea Willson, Ralph Martin and Georg Hartmann. We brainstormed together for about a week, which was great. Then each of them wrote one episode and I wrote the other four. After a few drafts, I took over all the scripts to bring the season together into one voice. Then the two directors came on board as we started to prepare for production.
“Joerg was involved from day one, of course. He’s a really experienced showrunner, so I couldn’t have had a better partner my first time out. This project has been a great collaboration for the two of us. And because I wrote the original scripts in English, he did the German polish.”
In future, however, Winger says she would much rather work with a writers room, where she enjoys the sense of collaboration.
“I have my writing office in the former Tempelhof airport terminal – the (former) fourth biggest building in the world – where sometimes I don’t see anyone else for a week,” she says. “So I loved working with other people on this project: producers, directors, actors and especially the other writers.
“If budget would allow for it, I would always work with a writers room. Stories get so much richer through collaboration.”
Meanwhile, Edward Berger, who directed the first five episodes of Deutschland 83, has opened up about the differences between German and US television.
“In Germany, television production has traditionally been very focused on 90-minute movies,” he says. “The idea of serialised drama that was started in the US was completely overslept by the German TV industry. I remember situations from just a few years ago, where we tried to pitch an idea for a series with a horizontal storyline, and the producers and networks kept saying, ‘This doesn’t work in Germany. People want a finished plot at the end of the night. They don’t want to worry about how it continues.’
“All the while shows from Denmark, Sweden, England and the US were having massive success around the globe. I couldn’t believe it. So Deutschland 83 is part of a fairly new development in German TV.
Writer/director Berger joined the series at a very early stage after he was contacted by Joerg Winger. He adds: “I really liked the characters – they seemed very real and vivid to me. So I said yes, and from then on we had continuous story meetings while Anna kept writing the scripts.
“It’s great to have a writer whose style you can trust. I can sit back and relax and wait until I get the next draft to critique. I can keep my distance and really judge the script from an outside perspective. When I write and direct, the danger is that I get too close to the subject matter. What I can’t stand, however, is to sit around and wait for that writer to appear. So, in the meantime when I don’t meet someone like Anna, I spend my time writing.”
FremantleMedia International secured the landmark deal to send Deutschland 83 to SundanceTV, which launched the eight-part series to US viewers on June 17.
Jonathan Brackley and Sam Vincent tell Michael Pickard how they transformed a Swedish sci-fi thriller into Channel 4’s biggest original drama for 20 years.
From spies to Synths, Sam Vincent and Jonathan Brackley can now be considered among the top writing talents in the UK after building a career across television and film.
Best known for running BBC1 spy drama Spooks for its final two seasons, they also brought the series to the big screen earlier this year in Spooks: The Greater Good.
For their latest project, the longtime collaborators are behind Humans, an eight-part sci-fi thriller that has become Channel 4’s biggest original drama in more than 20 years.
Based on the Swedish series Real Humans (aka Äkta människor), it is set in a parallel present where the latest must-have gadget for a busy family is a Synth – a life-like humanoid.
Featuring a cast including William Hurt, Katherine Parkinson, Gemma Chan, Colin Morgan, Emily Berrington and Neil Maskell, the debut episode drew a consolidated audience of 6.1 million viewers.
The drama represented an interesting challenge for Vincent and Brackley, who were brought on board by Kudos (Spooks, Broadchurch) to pen the series after the producer won a battle for the format rights. US cable network AMC later joined the series as a coproduction partner, with the show debuting stateside two weeks after its UK launch on June 14.
Brackley says: “We’ve worked with Kudos for the last couple of years, doing the last two seasons of Spooks and the Spooks movie. We got a call from (former Kudos CEO) Jane Featherstone, who said they’d just won a rights battle to this Swedish series about robots and wanted to know if we’d be interested. So we said yes.
“They gave us the first season to watch and we loved it. It’s so full of fascinating, interesting ideas, and approached in such a genuinely new way that we really wanted to have a go at bringing our own take to the show.”
In particular, Vincent says it was the drama’s unconventional take on artificial intelligence and how this could be placed at the heart of a family drama that attracted the pair to the series.
“Putting it right in the heart of the home was really fresh,” he says. “Usually these stories would be about the origins of the technology or a dark conspiracy surrounding its use, but this was about one ordinary family and how the strains and stresses that are already present open up into chasms by the arrival of this machine. That was the real creative coup of the original concept.”
Vincent and Brackley watched the first season of Real Humans twice, and then pushed it aside, fearful of relying too much on the source material and simply translating the original series, rather than putting their own stamp on its themes.
“If you compare the first episodes of the original with ours, you’ll see a lot of similarities,” explains Vincent. “You’ll see scenes that are the same and the key characters, but as we developed the story, it very organically grew into its own thing and you move further and further away (from the original) as the series progresses, so by the season end you’re in a very different space. It was all fairly organic and natural.”
The writing pair had not adapted a foreign-language drama before, but compared the process to joining Spooks after it had already been on air for eight seasons – taking over an established set of characters and taking them in a new direction, while retaining the show’s original spirit and tone.
That’s not to say they dispensed with Real Humans altogether, however. Brackley says: “There are individual moments that we really liked from the original that we kept, but in broader terms the narrative goes in a completely different direction by the end of the season. And if we’re lucky enough to get a second season, we’ll be carrying on from the end of ours.”
A second season is yet to be confirmed, but the ratings success of the first season suggest it’s more a matter of when than if. And it’s that success that Vincent and Brackley believe justifies the decision to remake Real Humans in the first place.
“We always knew there would be a few people saying ‘why remake this?’ but it’s not really an argument we have much sympathy for, because you only do it if you feel it’s creatively worthwhile,” says Vincent. “You feel you’re changing it for a different audience, growing it, developing it. We felt we were in conversation with the original and could do things in a slightly different way and build on certain aspects. There’s certainly room for both.”
Brackley adds: “There’s always a place for remakes as long as it’s doing something different, if it’s not just retreading the same territory in the same way then there’s always a place for an adaptation or translation into another country or another format.”
Having previously adapted another Scandinavian drama, the worldwide smash hit The Killing (aka Forbrydelsen), AMC was a natural US partner for Channel 4. Vincent admits he and Brackley were slightly overwhelmed at the prospect of working with the network, which counts Mad Men and The Walking Dead among its biggest hits, but says AMC were “incredibly supportive” and were fans of the show’s UK identity – ruling out fears that the show might suddenly be transplanted to a US location.
“The only concession we made for the American market was that we removed ‘milk float,’” he reveals. “We weren’t even told to do that, people just kept asking us what milk float meant.”
As for the key to making a successful remake, Vincent says writers have to steep any adaptation in cultural relevance: “Real Humans has a great universal concept but a lot of it is quite culturally specific. We wanted to turn the lens of the concept onto an English-speaking culture and Britain today, and that produced a lot of subtle and interesting effects and differences.
“You have to ask whether it’s truly worthwhile – are you just reheating something, or are you actually refreshing it, reinvigorating it, changing it for a different audience and bringing a lot of yourself to it? If you’re not, you really have no business doing it. It would be madness trying to adapt something you weren’t passionate about in the first place. If you’re as passionate about the source material as we were about Real Humans, then it can be a really fantastic process.”
Before putting pen to paper, however, Brackley and Vincent both met with the show’s original creator, Lars Lundström, to discuss the series and how they might adapt it for a new audience.
Lundström says the idea of blurring lines between humans and robots was something he’d been working on for several years, and had pitched to a few producers before it was picked up by Swedish pubcaster SVT. Real Humans first aired in 2012, running for two seasons.
“I have no idea where the idea for it came from, it just popped up in my head,” he says. “SVT were willing to take a chance on it because they saw it not as sci-fi but more as a drama or thriller.”
Of his meeting with Brackley and Vincent, Lundström says: “We spoke about the DNA of the show, but the storyline is up to them. We were speaking about what I thought was the bottom line of the show, and it was very fruitful. They’re two very intelligent writers so they picked it up and shaped it nicely.
“One thing to be clear about is the hu-bots (as Synths are called in the Swedish version) are neither bad nor good. They’re just something humans have created, so it’s not like other AI shows where they are purely bad and we have to destroy them. That makes it a bit more complex and complicated than other similar shows, and that was very important for me. It’s a show that explores interaction with technology and what it means to be human. It’s not really about robots; it’s about humans.
“I had full confidence in them and I knew they would do something great with it. When I read the first couple of scripts, I was just happy. It’s fun that it gets a new life in the English language.”
Lundström – who is now working on new “mystical thriller” 1001 for Gaumont International Television, Matador Film and Eyeworks Scandi Fiction – has written a storyline and some scripts for a third season, but says these are now unlikely to come to air.
Instead, he hopes Humans will pave the way for more series to be adapted across borders. “I hope broadcasters will dare more with their shows,” he adds. “Sci-fi is hard because it usually doesn’t hit big numbers, but now we’ve proved it can. In the US they have done lots of shows like The Walking Dead that prove genre can be big and broad.”
DQ editor Michael Pickard casts his eye over two very different Tutankhamun-focused shows heading for the small screen, with Spike TV spinning the story of the young ruler’s life and ITV tracking the discovery of his tomb.
As a subject for an epic television drama, the story of the Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun ticks all the right boxes.
Period costumes, exotic locations and the dramatisation of the trials and tribulations that met the boy pharaoh – he was around eight or nine when he ascended to the throne and 17 when he died – surely provide all the ingredients for an enthralling, absorbing saga.
That’s why it should come as no surprise that two series surrounding Tutankhamun are heading towards television screens.
The first, called Tut (main image), was unveiled as the marker for US cable channel Spike TV’s return to scripted programming. The six-hour miniseries, which will air across three nights from July 19, follows King Tut, played by Avan Jogia, and his closest adviser, Vizer Ay (Ben Kingsley).
The story revolves around Tut’s rise to power as the youngest ruler of Egypt and his struggle to lead Egypt to glory, while his closest advisers, friends and lovers scheme for their own nefarious interests.
Sibylla Deen, Alexander Siddig, Kylie Bunbury, Peter Gadiot, Iddo Goldberg and Nonso Anozie are also among the cast. The series is produced by Canada’s Muse Entertainment, with Channel 5 in the UK among the international broadcasters to have picked it up.
Others tying up deals for the show with Muse Distribution International include Discovery in Italy, SIC in Portugal and Sky in New Zealand.
The project had been in development at Muse since 2013, but was seen by Spike as a series that could relaunch it into the original drama arena.
At the time of the series pickup, in March 2014, Spike exec VP of original series Sharon Levy said: “We are thrilled to join forces with Muse Entertainment and this incredible writing team to bring the amazing story of one of history’s legendary leaders to life. Tut is the perfect addition to our slate of distinctive originals that appeal to a broad audience.”
Following in the footsteps of similar-subject movies released close together – think Deep Impact and Armageddon, or White House Down and Olympus Has Fallen – another series centred on Tutankhamun is heading to the small screen, this time in the UK.
ITV this week unveiled plans for an “epic and compelling” drama based on Howard Carter’s discovery of the boy king’s tomb. Four-part miniseries Tutankhamun, which will be written by Guy Burt (The Borgias), focuses on Carter himself – a solitary man on the edge of society who became an unlikely hero with his unprecedented and historic discovery.
The show will initially take viewers to 1905 as they meet Carter, an eminent British archaeologist who is leading an expedition through Egypt’s Valley of the Kings. But when tempers fray and the dig is put in jeopardy, his licence is revoked by Cairo’s Antiquities Service and he is forced to spend years on the outside, living rough and selling previously discovered archaeological relics to buy food.
However, a chance meeting with British aristocrat Lord Carnarvon leads to a change in Carter’s fortunes. The pair begin an unlikely friendship that in 1921 leads Carter to embark on a search for Tutankhamun’s final resting place.
From ITV Studios, the series is executive produced by Francis Hopkinson and Catherine Oldfield, with Simon Lewis producing. ITV Studios Global Entertainment holds distribution rights. Filming will take place this winter ahead of an early 2016 transmission date.
Hopkinson, ITV Studios’ creative director of drama, says: “Howard Carter’s discovery of the lost tomb of Tutankhamun is legendary. His all-consuming, obsessive search for the tomb pushed his friendship with Lord Carnarvon to the brink, while the adventurous and extroverted aristocrat poured his inheritance into the excavation.”
Oldfield adds: “This is a fascinating and compelling story with real historical significance. It’s based on true events and reveals how Carter desperately tries to persuade his patron (Carnarvon) to continue to bankroll the excavation. Ultimately it’s the story of what happens when you stake everything on one last roll of the dice.”
“Tutankhamun is a story of epic proportions,” adds Steve November, ITV director of drama. “Against the backdrop of World War One, conflict, murder, corruption, romance and the unlikeliest of friendships, Tutankhamun sees Howard Carter’s determination pay off in spectacular style when he discovers one of the greatest archaeological treasures of the modern world.”
Scripted entertainment, whether on television or film, seems to throw up similar series or films with regularity, particularly around anniversaries, such as when two Titanic series – Titanic and Titanic: Blood and Steel – were produced to coincide with the centenary of the ship’s 1912 sinking.
In this case, however, it seems both ITV and Spike TV have landed shows that appear to offer viewers drama overflowing with plot and absorbing locations, telling complimentary stories that have rarely, if ever, been dramatised.
Fans of Egyptian history and the mythology around Tutankhamun can look forward to a televisual feast fit for a king.
NBC Universal cable channel USA Networks did a strange thing this week. It commissioned a second season of cyber-hacker drama Mr Robot before the first season has even begun.
It’s not unusual for channels to renew dramas after a few episodes of the first season have aired, when they have had a chance to crunch the audience data, but why did USA Networks act so precipitously?
The answer is that it had already released a sneak preview of the pilot online. Since May 27, it has been available via Xfinity On Demand, USANetwork.com, Hulu, YouTube, iTunes, Amazon Instant Video, Google Play, Vudu, Xbox Video, PlayStation Video, IMDb and Telemundo.com, to name just a few.
The result was a very impressive 2.7 million views and a positive critical response. It was on this basis that USA decided to greenlight an additional 10 episodes for 2016.
“We knew from the moment we read Sam Esmail’s provocative script, and witnessed the brilliant performances of Rami Malek and Christian Slater, that Mr Robot is a stand-out series that is unlike anything currently on television,” said USA Network president Chris McCumber, announcing the renewal.
“The overwhelmingly positive fan reaction to the pilot and the broad sampling of it reaffirms our confidence in the series, and we’re excited to see where this drama will take us for season two.”
The show, for those yet to view it, sees Malek play a computer programmer who is a cyber-security engineer by day and a vigilante hacker by night. He finds himself at a crossroads when the leader of an underground hacker group recruits him to destroy the firm he is paid to protect.
“Sam Esmail has captured and distilled our ongoing cultural conversation about identity, privacy, value and self-worth,” said Jeff Wachtel, president and chief content officer at NBCUniversal Cable Entertainment. “We are all talking about the central themes of Mr Robot – Sam has just done it in a completely original and uniquely compelling way.”
Elsewhere in the NBC Universal family, flagship free-to-air network NBC announced this week that it had cancelled Hannibal, the Silence of the Lambs spin-off that is currently in its third, and now final, season.
In a statement, NBC said: “We have been tremendously proud of Hannibal over its three seasons. (Showrunner) Bryan Fuller and his team of writers and producers, as well as our incredible actors, have brought a visual palette of storytelling that has been second to none in all of TV – broadcast or cable. We thank (producer) Gaumont and everyone involved in the show for their tireless efforts that have made Hannibal an incredible experience for audiences around the world.”
By and large, the show has been well received by critics, but its cancellation is the result of low ratings. For an ad-funded channel like NBC, no amount of glowing reviews can justify persisting with a show if it isn’t delivering enough 18-49 adult impacts.
However, the fact NBC is pulling out does not necessarily mean this is the end for Hannibal. The show was initially picked up by Sony Pictures Television (SPT) for its international cable channel AXN, with NBC coming in as a US acquisition. So if SPT and AXN decide Hannibal is worth preserving, they and producer Gaumont could go in search of a new US partner for season four.
While the show is unlikely to attract the other major networks (ABC, NBC and CBS), it might appeal to a US cable net or streaming service. Not only does it have a high quotient of murder and mayhem, it also has the kind of in-built brand equity that would help it stand out from the crowd.
Fans of the series are already campaigning for Hannibal to find a new home, with the hashtag #SaveHannibal trending on Twitter.
The obvious partner would be SVoD platform Amazon, which already holds the rights to air the first two seasons of Hannibal and has a track record in reviving axed shows – such as Ripper Street, for example.
Fuller (who is also commencing work on American Gods for Starz) would welcome a reprieve and has suggested there is a chance it might happen. He told Deadline: “I would say 50/50. Because I’ve been down this road before and there’s that brief wave of ‘Oh it could be possible’ and then it just doesn’t happen. But it feels like the way this particular show is set up there is potential for a deal to be done. I know conversations are being had. It’s just a matter if they can come to an agreement that is mutually beneficial to the studio and the distributor.”
This week also saw the long-awaited launch of True Detective season two on premium cable network HBO in the US. In ratings terms, it started well – with its audience of 3.17 million making it the top cable show on Sunday night.
The show also had a good launch on Sky Atlantic in the UK. To capitalise on pre-launch buzz, the channel elected to air the show at the same time it was on in the US – which in the UK meant a 02.00 transmission time. This gave it an audience of 131,000. It then replayed the episode at 2100 on Monday, securing a further 251,000 viewers. While the latter figure is only marginally ahead of the channel’s 2100 slot average, the combination of the above two figures is a decent 382,000.
A couple of weeks ago, we discussed the prospects of Paul Abbott’s offbeat police procedural series No Offence, which airs on the UK’s Channel 4. While the ratings declined quite quickly after a strong opening, our view was that there was enough of a spark in the set-up for it to justify a second series.
This week, C4 confirmed that the show will return for another eight-episode run in 2016 – with a story involving warring crime families. Despite the audience dropping from around 2.5 million to just over one million, C4 head of drama Piers Wenger said: “No Offence is not just unlike any other cop show on TV, it’s unlike any other show on TV. Paul and the cast have set the bar high in terms of thrills, spills and belly laughs this year.”
The renewal is good news for FremantleMedia International, which holds the distribution rights and has already sold the first season to the likes of the ABC in Australia and Denmark’s DR. However, Abbott is going to have to find a way to breathe life back into the ratings if No Offence is to last as long as Shameless.
Sticking with C4, the strong performance of the show’s new futuristic drama Humans was confirmed this week with the release of consolidated ratings data. After the initial wave of results showed the Kudos-produced robot thriller achieved a record-breaking four million viewers for its debut episode, that figure has now been recalculated to take account of time-shifted viewing. The result is an aggregate audience of approximately 6.1 million, making Humans the biggest original drama on C4 for 20 years.
As we have mentioned in previous columns, the UK’s niche channels have become a useful testing ground for non-English language drama seeking to get a foothold in the international market. C4’s sister channel More4, for example, has started airing The Saboteurs (aka The Heavy Water War), a six-part World War Two drama about Allied attempts to foil the Nazis’ plans to build an atomic bomb.
The series attracted an impressive 1.7 million viewers when it debuted on NRK in Norway. On More4, the debut episode attracted 336,000. This was well ahead of the slot average, though the fact that a third of the audience was aged over 65 probably dampened More4’s enthusiasm.
While there is an understandable temptation to focus on the ratings performance of new shows, it’s always worth keeping an eye on how schedule stalwarts are holding up. It’s interesting, for example, that the top-rated US cable show of the last week was Rizzoli & Isles, a TNT detective series based on the novels by Tess Gerritsen.
Starring Angie Harmon as police detective Jane Rizzoli and Sasha Alexander as medical examiner Dr Maura Isles, the show started its sixth season on June 16 with an audience of 4.4 million. Judging by its past performance, the show’s ratings are likely to tail off slightly after a few episodes but, with 18 episodes in the upcoming series, it’s a very reliable part of the TNT schedule.
Looking back over historical ratings, Rizzoli & Isles has been a top-five basic cable show for the last five years. In 2014, it was actually the top-rating basic cable series, with an average of 7.6 million viewers in Live+7. With its strong ratings record and an episode count just shy of 100, it’s no surprise the show also does well in international distribution. Networks that have aired it include Net 5 in Netherlands, Vox in Germany, UK network Alibi and Rete 4 in Italy.
Away from the drama scene, another noteworthy international story is the news that US sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond is being remade in Hindi for Indian entertainment channel Star Plus. Raymond is a global phenomenon, spawning local versions in Russia, Egypt, Israel and the Netherlands, and selling to numerous other territories in its original form. Steve Skrovan, a writer on the US series, is working with the show’s Indian scribes to help get the adaptation right.
So many shows that appear in this column start strongly but then fade away, like books that people can’t be bothered finishing.
A clear exception to this is Game of Thrones, which has just come to the end of its fifth season. Packed with the usual array of murder, mayhem and fan-enraging reversals of fortune, the final episode of the latest run, Mother’s Mercy, brought a record-breaking 8.1 million viewers to HBO in the US (not including any laggards who will watch on a delayed basis).
This season is approximately one million up on season four, which itself was a massive hit. Only AMC’s The Walking Dead has achieved higher ratings on US cable.
Game of Thrones has also proved a big hit for Sky Atlantic in the UK, where the show has averaged 1.2 million across its 10-episode run. When time-shifted viewing is factored in, the figure is more like two million. These numbers are well ahead of season four, and more than fives times higher than the channel’s slot average.
But Game of Thrones’ success shouldn’t be allowed to overshadow a superb launch for Kudos-produced robot thriller Humans on Channel 4. An eight-part coproduction with AMC, the show achieved a record-breaking four million viewers, making it C4’s biggest ever original drama series launch. With an 18.3% share, the show more than doubled the channel’s 21.00 slot average.
Humans’ strong ratings have been reinforced by generally positive reviews. The Guardian called the show “a clever, high energy thriller,” while Neil Midgley, writing for Forbes, said Humans “hasn’t yet reached Blade Runner’s standards of greatness. But its first episode offered a pretty good start.”
Slightly less enthused was The Telegraph, which concluded: “With seven episodes still to come, it’s hard to imagine working up strong feelings for these robots with feelings. As a dystopian sci-fi police thriller satirical family drama, Humans felt like it was suffering from conceptual overload and in need of a reboot.”
All that remains then is to see how the show holds up in episode two. While there is bound to be a drop-off as some of the audience pull out and others set their TVs to record the series, the degree of the decline will tell us a lot about the Humans’ future.
One thing the series has in its favour is that it was scripted by Sam Vincent and Jonathan Brackley, whose staying power was proven with spy drama Spooks and its recent movie spin-off Spooks: The Greater Good.
Back in the US, one show that seems to be doing well enough to merit a renewal is Fox’s Wayward Pines. Directed by M Night Shyamalan and starring Matt Dillon, the show’s on- and off-screen talent meant it was always likely to get off to a good start. But five episodes into its first 10-episode season, it is holding up very well, with same-day ratings coming in around the four million mark.
Indeed, the general consensus is that episode five (The Truth) is the strongest so far, a fact that has boosted Wayward Pines’ ratings and got the fanbase buzzing. While some critics have complained that the set-up of the series has been too slow, the fact is the audience’s loyalty to the show is also evident through its strong catch-up ratings, which usually add a further three million or so viewers in the week after an episode’s launch.
With particular strength among 18-49s, it would be surprising if Wayward Pines didn’t earn a second season. The real question now is just how good can it become creatively.
Of course, measuring a show’s success has become much more complex in recent years, thanks to the number of different platforms on which people can view. While there’s still a temptation to judge a show on the size of its first-night ratings, executives are having to hold their fire until all of the data has trickled in.
There was a good case in point this week. US cable channel FX has just released figures that show the last season of its anthology series American Horror Story (AHS), entitled Freak Show, was FX’s most-watched programme ever when all viewing platforms are counted. Based on the latest tally of linear and non-linear viewership, ratings research firm Nielsen estimates that roughly 12.64 million viewers on average watched Freak Show. Not only does this surpass the previous season of AHS, it is also higher than the seventh and final season of Sons of Anarchy (11.69 million). Particularly impressive were the show’s VoD viewing figures. At 12% of the total, they were the highest percentage among any FX show to date.
Interestingly, AHS Freak Show finished in January – so it has taken FX half a year to make the above announcement. While the channel no doubt had an unofficial indication of the numbers a few months ago, it’s still a useful warning against snap judgements.
This isn’t to say that overnight ratings no longer have any value. But the real indicator of a show’s appeal is not just the size of its live audience, it is the ability to sustain that level over a number of weeks. As explained earlier in this column, shows that shed audience rapidly from episode one to two are usually in deep trouble. For the record, American Horror Story returns for season five in October and will have pop icon Lady Gaga among its new cast members.
Finally, the second series of HBO’s True Detective franchise debuts this Sunday. This, of course, means it is too early to make snap judgements based on overnights. But it isn’t too early to make a few premature observations based on reviews.
For the most part, reviewers that have watched the show have displayed due respect to the writing talents of Nic Pizzolatto and a cast that includes Vince Vaughn, Rachel McAdams, Colin Farrell and Taylor Kitsch. But they are split over the merits of the show. In the pro camp are Deadline and The Telegraph, with the latter declaring “Pizzolatto has made a triumphant return.”
Less palatable for HBO is The Baltimore Sun’s pithy summary: “This season (Pizzolatto) seems content with borderline stereotypical depictions of emotionally maimed, out-of-control, angry cops that have unfortunately become a staple of TV drama.”
Now all we need is for the audience to have their say.
It’s been a topsy-turvy week for US showrunner/screenwriter Carlton Cuse, who is currently working with cable channel A&E on two scripted series, Bates Motel and The Returned.
A few days ago, he learnt that the former had been greenlit for seasons four and five, but the latter – an adaptation of French zombie drama Les Revenants – has been cancelled after a lacklustre debut.
The Returned is a rare failure for Harvard-educated Cuse, whose shows tend to run and run. His first big success was Nash Bridges, which aired on CBS from 1996 to 2001.
A small hiccup came in 1998 with the quickly cancelled series Martial Law, also on CBS, but it seems churlish to even mention it when you consider that Cuse would later become one of the key architects of ABC’s Lost, arguably the standout drama series of the last decade. Although Cuse wasn’t involved as a writer in the pilot or the early episodes of season one, he co-wrote a number of episodes in the second half of its freshman year and then took on additional writing duties in seasons two and three.
By season four, he was penning the all-important opening and closing episodes in partnership with Damon Lindelof – a role he kept until the show ended in 2010. The final episode earned Cuse and Lindelof an Emmy nomination.
Bates Motel, a prequel to Alfred Hitchcock’s classic thriller Psych, launched in 2013 and marked the start of an incredibly prolific period for Cuse. In 2014, his vampire drama The Strain debuted on FX and in 2015 came A&E’s The Returned. He’s also working on Colony for USA Network, a thriller about life in LA after a mysterious foreign occupation and the efforts by the proxy government to crush the resistance movement. Initially greenlit as a pilot, it secured a 10-episode order in February. And as if all of this isn’t enough to be getting on with, he also found time to create a 2015 pilot for Amazon Studios called Point of Honor.
With so much good stuff to Cuse’s name, what went wrong with The Returned? At first sight, you might argue that Cuse had too much on his plate – with four series at various stages of production and development. But that seems unlikely given that Cuse typically shares creative responsibilities with a strong partner, thus easing the workload. In the case of The Returned, for example, he worked alongside Raelle Tucker, who established her credentials on HBO’s hit vampire series True Blood.
It is more likely, perhaps, that The Returned arrived in the US too late, with ABC’s Resurrection – another show about the dead coming back to life – hitting the market in 2014. It’s also just possible that we’re starting to see flaws in the scripted format model, at least in terms of foreign dramas being adapted for the US market.
While the success of Homeland, based on Israeli drama Hatufim, has proved that this model can work, the growing number of scripted format failures suggests transplanting shows is not such a safe bet.
While no one likes it when one of their shows doesn’t work, Cuse is unlikely to be too downbeat about the loss of The Returned. In a profile by Variety, he observed philosophically how “in Hollywood, it’s impossible to get the temperature of the porridge just right. No matter what your intentions are, Hollywood has a 90% failure rate. I had to put a few different irons in the fire because I didn’t think everything was going to work.” To his credit, Cuse is currently running at a higher success rate than most.
There is also news this week concerning another of the US industry’s hottest talents, John Ridley. After winning an Academy Award in 2013 for 12 Years a Slave (Best Adapted Screenplay), Ridley has been riding high with American Crime, a series he created and wrote for ABC. ABC is clearly very impressed with Ridley because it has renewed American Crime for a second season and this week also ordered a pilot from him, entitled Presence. It will be produced by ABC Studios.
In development for the 2016/2017 season, Presence is about a former army counter-insurgency operative who starts a new career as an unlicensed private investigator in LA. There are also reports that Ridley is working on a secret project with ABC Studios’ sister division Marvel Studios.
Ridley, soon to turn 50, is something of an eclectic talent. Have started his adult life as a stand-up comedian, before going on to write episodes of shows including The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Subsequently, he has written and directed movies, produced TV series and penned numerous books. His novel Spoils of War became the acclaimed David O. Russell movie Three Kings.
On the subject of novelists-turned-screenwriters, the big story of the week in the UK is that Irvine Welsh (who will forever be referred to as the author of Trainspotting) is working on a 6×60’ series called Too Much Rock N Roll. Backed by producer Keo Films and distributor Content Media, the drama will tell the story of Anthony and Christopher Donnelly, who were born into Manchester’s notorious gang culture but went on to launch an internationally successful fashion label.
The factual drama, which continues Keo’s recent push into scripted series, is based on the Donnellys’ autobiography Still Breathing, which was published in 2013.
Welsh and long-time collaborator Dean Cavanagh are co-writing the show, having previously worked together on projects like Good Arrows, Dose and Wedding Belles. In a joint statement, Welsh and Cavanagh said: “We’re really excited to be involved in telling the story of the Donnelly Brothers for the screen. We’ve been offered many true-life stories over the years but what attracts us to this story in particular is the fact that Anthony and Christopher are unbeatable – they won’t take no for answer – and we’re going to capture that spirit. It’s something we relate to, having spent decades working in the business that is ‘show’ and all the attendant bullshit that comes with it. Anthony and Christopher are stand-up lads and so are we. Hopefully this is the start of a long and creative partnership.”
With digital powerhouses such as Netflix fundamentally changing the TV distribution landscape, how are the world’s development executives reacting to the new environment, and what does the future hold for drama production, commissioning and funding?
It’s no secret that television’s traditional distribution model has been thoroughly shaken up by Netflix and Amazon during the past three years.
As a result, broadcasters, from ABC in the US to ZDF in Germany, are in the process of trying to reinvent themselves digitally, primarily by launching their own on-demand platforms in an attempt to future-proof their brands.
It would follow that the development slates of traditional production outfits require a similar level of transformation – but the question of whether content itself needs to change in line with consumption habits is a contentious one.
As the well-worn mantra of the television exec goes, despite all the noise around digital, great drama is still all about storytelling. And loud, addictive and exclusive must-see shows, alongside a large library of classics, are the key to building and retaining audiences.
Therefore, it’s the MO of every development exec to have a slate that boasts the kind of show that’s going to have people watching episode after episode, gorging well into the small hours and then telling their friends about it the next day.
“Everyone is chasing big, noisy event programming. There are variations, but everyone is kind of after that same thing,” says Adam Fratto, exec VP of development at the US arm of New Zealand’s Pukeko Pictures.
Fratto, whose drama credits include Haven and The Dead Zone, was hired by Pukeko in 2012 to develop and pitch scripted projects to US cable channels, which are seemingly falling over each other to commission drama projects.
Most drama is expensive, however, and Fratto says Pukeko’s approach is to target partnerships that are both creatively and financially logical in order to make as ambitious projects as possible. New Zealand has several international copro treaties, making Pukeko a potentially lucrative partner when it comes to budgets. Recent productions filmed and set there include Top of the Lake, a copro between BBC2 in the UK, BBC’s UKTV in Australia and New Zealand and SundanceTV in the US.
“We know exactly what we want to do. We look at Game of Thrones and say ‘Well, shit, you shot that in six countries and you could have shot it in one.’ That sweet spot of epic, world-building fantasy and sci-fi is exactly what we should be doing, and that’s what we’re focusing on,” Fratto says. “We’ve just been greenlit on a copro treaty with Australia and we’d really like to find one with the UK, as we think there are a lot of complementary opportunities. As an international company, we don’t feel we have to be particularly US-focused – we’re taking a very broad view.”
Sci-fi also happens to be on the to-do list of UK-based Death in Paradise producer Red Planet Pictures, which was founded in 2005 by Life on Mars scribe Tony Jordan and prides itself on being completely writer-led. The firm recently produced The Passing Bells (2×90’) for the BBC’s flagship channel, which aired the epic drama in November last year to mark the centenary of the First World War.
“We’re a truly writer-led company, so we want to nurture new talent under Tony’s wing and mentor them through that process,” says Simon Winstone, executive producer at Red Planet. “There are always things we wish we had. Tony and I share a desire to do a big sci-fi show, and it’s probably the time for it. Tony is quite militant in not taking briefs from people. We take the view that when you know what people are looking for, they’re rarely ever going to commission that. They always tend to commission something different.”
Others, meanwhile, are choosing to take inspiration from the international drama community, pitching successful local formats to US broadcasters looking to manage the level of risk around their next commission.
Take UK-based New Media Vision (NMV), which was set up by former US studio exec Todd Lituchy six years ago as a consultancy firm and has steadily branched into production and distribution. In 2013 it sold the popular Spanish format The Mysteries of Laura to NBC, which placed Will & Grace star Debra Messing in the lead role as a detective who solves murder cases while dealing with her two sons and an ex-husband.
“For us, it’s about finding great underlying material, where somebody has already built the world. We’re the opposite of a writer-driven company; we’re an execution company,” says Lituchy. “Our scripted development side has two halves. On one side, we work with production companies around the globe to identify IP that has a chance of successfully capturing a global audience. On the other, we’re working with new writers in both the US and the UK on ideas that we feel are really strong. We work with them to develop scripts and shoot pilot presentations, and then we take it to an audience. We’re not working to a specific channel brief, but on content that we think will resonate with viewers.”
The exec says he sees digital as a huge opportunity because, as a producer and a distributor, it means there are more buyers for his company’s content. “Even though it’s more competition for traditional linear channels, I don’t see them going away in the near future,” Lituchy adds, being careful not to rock the boat too much.
Pukeko’s Fratto concurs that digital distribution is presenting more “opportunities” to producers. However, he takes a more apocalyptic view when it comes to the future of linear broadcasters. The frenzy of drama commissions around the world is potentially unsustainable and could result in the demise of some channels, as the current drama marketplace faces the danger of becoming “saturated,” he believes.
“People in my neighbourhood are talking about a bubble. When I first started in scripted dramatic television, there were six legitimate buyers in the US – I think there are 42 now. But the number of eyeballs has not increased sevenfold.”
Fratto points to the recent closure of Microsoft’s short-lived Xbox Entertainment Studios (XES) as evidence that the “bubble” could be set to burst: “We had a very big miniseries project set up with XES. We closed the deal and the next week it was gone. I’m not saying that’s going to continue to happen, but it may. The fact is, we all have to think about whether the marketplace can sustain all these entities programming huge, expensive drama.”
Indeed, it’s hard to imagine every broadcaster and digital player being able to go toe to toe with Netflix in the future, given that one of the SVoD platform’s latest pieces of original programming, the 10-episode historical epic Marco Polo (pictured top), cost a reported US$90m to make.
“Everyone’s still going to want to consume content that they’re excited about. And it’s probably going to become more challenging to reach them and make money. But there will be money to be made, you just have to surf that tide,” Fratto adds. “A lot of broadcasters around the world, particularly in the US, are probably going to go out of business once things become unbundled from cable and decoupled from your TV set.”
Lituchy, meanwhile, can see the UK market going the same way as the US, with more and more channels using original content as a way to differentiate themselves from their competitors. “Ten years ago in the UK, you had four buyers. Now you’ve got UKTV, Comedy Central and Netflix commissioning UK content. I would expect more channels to move into original programming as well,” he says.
“Everything is in quite a healthy state,” believes Red Planet’s Winstone, who is quite happy to concentrate on continuing to produce primetime for the BBC and other UK channels, rather than chase the affections of the new kids on the block.
“ITV is commissioning more, Sky is commissioning more. Drama is doing well on Channel 4. At the moment it feels like drama is rewarding those channels. We’re in a good place. We have a brilliant relationship with the BBC.
“Ultimately, we love the idea of millions of people watching and talking about the show the next day. Digital is not our focus. We’re big fans of traditional viewing – we haven’t created anything yet that needs to work on digital. We want to make shows that go out at 21.00.”
For the moment, the programming strategies of Netflix, Amazon and Hulu all appear to be more a case of throwing premium content at a wall and seeing what sticks, rather than focusing on one style or genre in particular.
It’s hard to know whether they’re looking for cable-style, niche programming like Mad Men, or broadcast shows with wider appeal such as How to Get Away With Murder. Ask them and they’d probably say both.
In the case of the US remake of The Mysteries of Laura, which Lituchy now exec produces for NBC, NMV originally thought it would go on to become a cable show, but eventually decided to take it only to broadcast networks.
“We actually pitched it to ABC, CBS and NBC. Those were the three networks we decided it would fit well, and all of them made offers,” Lituchy says. “It’s not the kind of show a Netflix would be interested in buying. We’re going for a very large audience, not a smaller audience that would want to shell out money to watch the next episode. But we do have other formats on which we would be more than happy to partner with Netflix.”
Grand-scale international coproductions are only going to become more common in the future as broadcasters look to commission their own tent-pole shows to compete with big spenders such as Netflix. And, for small companies like NMV – which at the time of writing comprises a team of five people – they’re a way to get involved in more ambitious projects.
“For us, international coproductions are great,” Lituchy says. “We’re a small company, so the BBC might not give us £500,000 (US$782,000) per episode to produce a show. But if we partner up with other companies either in the UK or internationally, we’re more likely to get that funding.”
And, for Pukeko Pictures, which isn’t able to rely on its local broadcasters to get projects fully funded, international coproductions are a vital part of the business model. “We’re exploring coproductions with studios and producers from other countries, with a particular eye on where we can take advantage of the recently heightened incentive schemes. What we do have to offer, under a treaty coproduction, is 40% incentive out of New Zealand,” Fratto says.
Death in Paradise, which returned for a fourth season on BBC1 earlier this year and will come back for a fifth, has flourished precisely because of its international partners, according to Winstone – who adds that people initially thought Red Planet was “insane” to attempt a coproduction with France Télévisions.
“The English-French thing has made it a much, much better show. But, like anything, it’s something you have to manage. One of the things (exec producer) Tony Jordan has been brilliant at is steering a course and making sure there’s a vision. At times you have to be robust, know what the show is and hold on to the heart of it,” Winstone adds.
“TV is a collaborative process. You have to let people have their voice, particularly if they are putting money in. Make sure you listen to them when they’re making a good point – and when they’re not, try and explain why they’re wrong, in a very nice way.”
A good sense of diplomacy, it seems, looks set to be the one thing that any producer wanting to make next-generation drama will require in spades. But how the new digital distribution paradigm will change the game further is yet to be seen.
Israeli scripted series first had a significant impact on the global stage towards the end of the last decade, when Hot Broadcasting’s BeTipul was reinvented for the US market as In Treatment. Launched on HBO in 2008, the US version of the show ran for three series (106 episodes) and focused on the personal and professional life of a psychologist played by Gabriel Byrne.
The next Israeli scripted show to break into the US was Ramzor, a 30-something comedy from Keshet that was remade as Traffic Light for Fox. This show only ran for one season, in 2011, but provided further conformation that Israeli was a country worth scouting.
The big breakthrough came later that year when the Keshet show Hatufim, which tells the story of two Israeli soldiers who are released after 17 years in captivity, was reinvented as Homeland for Showtime. In English, ‘hatufim’ means ‘abductees,’ though the Israeli show is generally referred to internationally as Prisoners of War (except in the US). Homeland has just entered production on a fifth series and is regarded as one of the standout scripted series of the last five years, mentioned in the same breadth as Mad Men, Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead.
Echoing the situation with high-profile Latin American telenovelas like Ugly Betty and Nordic Noir series like The Bridge, the success of Homeland in the US has turned the Homeland/Prisoners of War franchise into an industry in its own right. Both versions are available to the international market as completed shows. And Prisoners of War is also available as a format, having already sold to Russia, Colombia, Mexico, Turkey and South Korea.
Homeland injected a new level of intensity into the search for adaptable Israeli shows. For example, in the case of Bnei Aruba, CBS in the US struck a deal that allowed it to develop a US version of the show in parallel with the creation of an Israeli version for Channel 10. Called Hostages, the US version actually aired three weeks before the original. Like with Homeland, this also helped kickstart international interest in the original Hebrew show, which sold to BBC4 and Canal+.
Of course, not all Israeli series have been hits in the US. Espionage drama Ta Gordin (The Gordin Cell), which aired on Yes, was a hit on home soil but didn’t make it to the end of the first season when NBC remade it as Allegiance. Launched Stateside in February 2015, it was axed five episodes later due to low ratings. But even this result wasn’t a total negative for the show – because it gave it international exposure. Korean company IMTV, for example, elected to produce a version for its highly competitive market.
When Israelis are asked to analyse why their shows have generated so much interest, they cite three main factors. First, they explain, Israeli audiences are highly critical and get bored easily – which means there is a high turnover of original stories and a constant quest for fresh insight. Second, Israel is a small country operating on tight budgets. So if a show can work in this environment, it will have no problem once it secures a bigger budget. And finally, there is an authenticity and honesty to Israeli scripted shows that comes from living on the front line.
The question, of course, is whether they can keep up the momentum. So what is coming down the line that might catch the attention of the international market? Well, one new title that has already caught the attention of the US market is Beit HaMishalot, a Channel 1 series about a psychiatrist who makes clients’ wishes come true. Presumably buoyed by its success with In Treatment, HBO is remaking the show as House of Wishes.
Keshet, meanwhile, has secured international interest in Pilpelim Zehubim, a poignant but humorous story about a family that learns to adapt after discovering their five-year-old son is autistic. Critically acclaimed in Israel, the show is now being remade in the UK under the title The A Word. The six-part drama series will air on BBC1 and will be coproduced by Fifty Fathoms Productions, Tiger Aspect Productions and Keshet’s UK arm.
Brazil is also riding the Israeli wave. In November 2014, cable channel TNT Brazil announced plans to remake Allenby. Based on a novel by Gadi Taub and originally produced for Channel 10 in 2012, this series is a sex industry crime drama that follows the story of a nightclub on Tel Aviv’s Allenby Street and one of the strippers working there. Explaining why TNT picked up the show, Rogério Gallo, movies and series VP for Turner International Brazil, said: “The similarities between Allenby Street in Israel and Rua Augusta (in Sao Paulo, Brazil) are magnificent; both are a part of each city’s history and the centre of a sizzling nightlife. These are great ingredients for a remarkable television show.”
The Israeli press has also started to get excited by Fauda, a new show from co-creators Avi Issacharoff and Lior Raz that has only recently finished airing. Broadcast by cable platform Yes, Fauda (Arabic for ‘chaos’) is a typically Israeli no-holds-barred series about a group of undercover operatives trying to capture a notorious Hamas terrorist. Commenting on the show, The Times of Israel said: “It’s been just three months since Fauda brought the chaos of the West Bank to Yes viewers, but the show has become so popular that its actors can’t walk down the street without being stopped by fans.”
The series stands out because it makes a genuine effort to be even-handed about the Israel/Palestine conflict, casting Arabic actors and creating storylines that deal with the pain of being on the receiving end of Israel’s military might. With a second series on the way and US interest, the Times of Israel said Fauda “has been lauded for its realism, its extensive use of Arabic and the empathy viewers are forced to have for the Hamas characters.”
We’ll finish this week’s column by crossing the border into Egypt, which, like the rest of the Muslim world, is about to embark on Ramadan (from June 18). For those unfamiliar with Muslim culture, Ramadan is an important holy period that is marked out by fasting during daylight. Ramadan is also important in TV terms, because countries like Egypt spend large sums of money producing TV dramas to entertain people during Ramadan.
One show that catches the eye this year is Haret al-Yahood (The Jewish Quarter). Set in 1952 to 1956, it tells the story of Ali, an Egyptian army officer, and Laila, a Jewish woman, who fall in love. Their romance is played out against the backdrop of rising Egyptian nationalism and tensions over the creation of Israel.
Speaking to local Egyptian media outlet Al-Masry Al-Youm, series writer Medhat al-Adl, a respected figure within the Egyptian creative community, said he wanted to depict a cosmopolitan Egypt in which all religions and languages coexist. “(The series) talks about how Egypt once coexisted with all religions and embraced people from all over the world because it was a cosmopolitan country. Egypt was great then. The Jews were of Egypt’s fabric. They were Egyptians. They were traders who lived with Muslims and they contributed to the Egyptian economy. The stereotypical portrayal of Jews in Egyptian films is that they are penny-pinchers (but) they were the best merchants of Egypt.”
Here’s hoping that Fauda and Haret al-Yahood both prove successful, because they are an antidote to the kind of extremism and bigotry that characterises 21st century politics and media.
A+E Studios’ Bob DeBitetto outlines the new company’s mission statement as DQ takes a look at some of the shows emerging from the fledging production entity.
In June 2013 US broadcaster A+E Networks announced it was going to launch an in-house production studio under the leadership of Bob DeBitetto (pictured above), the president of brand strategy and business development at the parent company.
Two years down the line and the company has started making its mark with a string of scripted productions, including Houdini, Texas Rising, Sons of Liberty, UnREAL and a US adaptation of French supernatural hit The Returned. According to DeBitetto, there’s also a substantial development slate that will enable the studio to step up a gear in the next year or two. Among titles close to getting the green light is The Liberator, a wartime drama shaping up as A+E’s answer to HBO’s Band of Brothers.
Sons of Liberty
A six-part miniseries for History from A+E Studios and Stephen David Entertainment, Sons of Liberty follows historical figures Sam Adams, John Adams, Paul Revere, John Hancock and Joseph Warren as they secretly join forces to make America a nation. Written by Stephen David and David C. White, the show was helmed by Kari Skogland and features a title theme by Oscar-winning composer Hans Zimmer. The production is distributed internationally by A+E Networks.
DeBitetto has long been an advocate of an A+E-owned production entity because “it makes good economic sense. Under the traditional model, our US networks (which include A+E, History and Lifetime) pay around 70% of the cost of production for a licence fee. The producer of the show – let’s say MGM or Warner Bros – then deficits the remainder and takes the worldwide rights. For me, this has always been problematic, because we are building programme brands but not participating fully in their success.”
This issue has become increasingly acute in the last three to five years, says DeBitetto, “because there are more platforms around the world consuming drama content, including SVoD players like Netflix and Amazon. So before the launch of A+E Studios we were in a position where we had a strong global distribution business (the international division of A+E Networks, headed by Sean Cohan), but didn’t own shows like Vikings (property of MGM). That meant we were losing out on potential revenue but also faced the prospect that shows we helped build in the US would appear on rivals elsewhere.”
Against this backdrop, the purpose of A+E Studios is to rebalance that relationship. “The studio is the vessel for us to own the content supply and exercise greater control over the programming,” DeBitetto says. “We will develop shows, deficit-finance them and put them through distribution ourselves.”
Texas Rising is an eight-part miniseries that airs on History in the US and is being distributed internationally by ITV Studios Global Entertainment. It tells the story of the Texan revolution against Mexico and the rise of the Texas Rangers, the oldest law-enforcement group in North America. Exec producer is Leslie Greif, who has already had a hit Western in the shape of Hatfields & McCoys. The cast includes Bill Paxton, Olivier Martinez, Brendan Fraser, Ray Liotta and Kris Kristofferson. The show was produced by A+E Studios and ITV Studios America, in association with Thinkfactory Media.
It all makes sense. But if there is a countervailing argument, it’s that studios cost a lot to build and support. As DeBitetto acknowledges, A+E Studios is “not just a name on a letterhead, it is a proper studio with 25 to 30 executives in LA and another team based with me in New York, covering all the functions you’d expect across production, development and business affairs. So, yes, it involves a sizeable capital investment.”
But, for DeBitetto, “the real risk is the old model, where we had our hands wrapped around the worst part of the business. Our view is that even if a show doesn’t get renewed, it’s still possible to recoup the deficit internationally. Besides, the real risk is that we create shows that make $100m for someone else. A critical part of building an international business is being able to sync it up as much as possible around content. Just imagine if we make the next Walking Dead but don’t control it outside of a US licence.”
In a perfect, friction-free world, A+E Studios would make great scripted shows for A+E, History and Lifetime in the US and then pass them over to the distribution division to sell around the globe (ideally to the international arms of A+E’s own channels). But in reality the market is much more complex.
UnREAL is the first show that sees A+E Studios in complete control. Inspired by Sarah Gertrude Shapiro’s short film Sequin Raze, the series is set against the backdrop of a hit dating competition show, whose young producer manipulates contestants to get dramatic and outrageous footage. The programme is produced by A+E Studios and Frank & Bob Films II, with Marti Noxon (Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce, Grey’s Anatomy) as co-creator and executive producer. Distributed by A+E Networks, the show is airing on Lifetime US and has already been picked up by a number of networks including TF1 in France and Antena 3 in Spain.
The first tier of complexity involves A+E’s US networks, which need to be able to buy drama from multiple sources: “Our CEO is clear that content ownership must be a key tentpole of this business. But the people running our networks need to be free to do business with other suppliers. For us, a quid pro quo of this is that A+E Studios should be able to sell content to third parties. If content ownership is a good and profitable business, then there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be selling our shows to other networks and the SVoD platforms. I could see us partnering on a show with Netflix.”
Another issue is what A+E Studios should do when another company already has its hands on a property that it wants to participate in. A case in point is The Returned, whose first season concluded last month on A+E in the US. “FremantleMedia were very smart and managed to get hold of the format rights to the show,” says DeBitetto. “We were interested in the show and took the creative lead, but that had to be set up as a coproduction where we shared the risk and the rights with them.”
DeBitetto has actually been doing quite a lot of sharing since launching his studio: “The first project we got involved with was Houdini, which was pretty much fully developed when we stepped in. So in that case we were involved as a co-financer. Then there was Texas Rising. In that case, ITV got involved when they acquired the show’s producer (Thinkfactory).
“Clearly, I’d like to move towards a model where we fully own shows. But sometimes it doesn’t work out like that, particularly when you are starting up a studio. I see our future slate as being a mix of partnerships and wholly owned shows, but with the wholly owned shows taking a bigger percentage.”
This four-hour miniseries from Gerald W. Abrams aired on A+E’s History in 2014. Written by Nicholas Meyer (Star Trek), Houdini starred Oscar-winning actor Adrien Brody (The Pianist) as the famed illusionist and escape artist Harry Houdini. A Lionsgate/A+E Studios coproduction, the show debuted on History to 3.7 million viewers, making it one of the network’s strongest scripted shows ever. Houdini was distributed internationally by Lionsgate and sold to networks including Seven in Australia.
Probably the biggest deciding factor in whether A+E Studios thrives will be the quality of talent it attracts. DeBitetto is aware of this and has started signing up showrunners on development deals. “We’ve done deals with Michael Hirst and Carlton Cuse. What we like about these two is that they are both phenomenal talents who have produced great shows for A+E’s networks (Vikings and Bates Motel). We’d rather be in business with creatives where we know the chemistry works.”
Again, flexibility is the watchword when putting together deals like these: “We aren’t like the big studios, which can put people on huge exclusive deals. We need to be smart and not try to keep these guys in a walled-up dungeon. They need to be able to work with others too. That’s another reason why it’s important for us to sell to third-party networks. We can’t be in a position where shows developed here are never used because they are not picked up by our channels.”
DeBitetto is cautious about discussing future projects by name – with the exception of The Liberator, an eight-hour production that will follow the progress of US WW2 soldiers as they battle up through Italy and into Germany before getting involved in the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp. “The project has been written by Jeb Stuart (Die Hard, The Fugitive), which is really exciting,” says DeBitetto. “If you think about how much CGI and SFX have come on since Band of Brothers, this will be a really spectacular piece of TV.”
As for the rest of the development slate, he says: “We have eight fully developed screenplays in front of A+E and six in early development with History. I don’t want to say too much yet but there is one time-travel project and another set around the time of the Crusades. Overall it’s an eclectic mix.”
In terms of the studio’s capacity, DeBitetto adds: “Put it this way, if A+E, Lifetime and History sent everything our way over the next three years, we could handle it. More realistically, if we get half to two-thirds of their scripted orders then we could handle those and have room to work on third-party orders. I don’t think you’re going to see us turning work down.”
A coproduction between A+E Studios and FremantleMedia North America, The Returned is based on the successful French drama Les Revenants. It focuses on a small town that is turned upside down when several local people come back from the dead. FremantleMedia is distributing the series internationally, excluding the US and Canada, which are being handled by A+E Studios. Carlton Cuse (Bates Motel) wrote the first episode, and alongisde Raelle Tucker wrote and executive produced the series. The show debuted on A+E in the US on March 9. Just prior to that, FremantleMedia agreed a deal that will see The Returned debut on Netflix outside of the US and Canada. Netflix will add the show to its US service next year.
While A+E Studios is centred on LA and New York, DeBitetto says international plays a key role in the studio’s thinking. “Firstly, there are the ideas out in the market, like The Returned, which started in France. It doesn’t always work out, as we found the previous year when A+E in the US adapted Danish crime drama Those Who Kill. There are a lot of good titles out there and an appetite to adapt them in the US.”
Then there is the financing, continues DeBitetto: “When you think about that deficit I referred to earlier, it’s the financial projections coming back from Sean Cohan’s international team that underpin our productions. They are the ones with the market-by-market expertise, so their judgments are critical when assessing affordability and likely returns.”
So where does that leave the ambition to build A+E’s channel brands with wholly owned programming assets? What’s the correct play if a third-party network in the international market is willing to pay more to licence a show than an A+E network? “It’s case by case,” says DeBitetto. “If the option of selling to a big commercial network comes along then that’s clearly more attractive than selling to a smaller A+E network, particularly if our channel’s emphasis is more on factual. But here’s the thing – all we are selling is a window. Ownership means we can have our cake and eat it too. That’s where we are heading.”
In terms of how he wants the A+E Studios brand to be perceived, DeBitetto stresses that it is not a consumer-facing brand like the channels for which it produces. “But as a B2B brand I want people to think of us as small, smart, nimble, creative, eclectic, culturally relevant with an independent spirit,” he adds.
“The truth is your brand is defined by what you do. But we’re definitely material driven. For us, it’s what’s on the page, and then the screen, that matters.”
SundanceTV has been steadily building its homegrown drama credentials over the past few years. Christian Vesper, senior VP of scripted development and current, tells DQ why he believes the network has turned a corner.
There is perhaps no other name more closely identified with independent movies than the Sundance Film Festival. And there is no other television network more closely associated with the festival than the Sundance Channel, which is why, when the station decided on a rebrand last year, it stayed well within the halo of the Robert Redford brand.
SundanceTV arrived in time for the February 2014 premiere of the channel’s second wholly owned homegrown drama series, The Red Road – signifying another step towards its ambition of becoming better known for scripted television.
The journey began in 2010 with Carlos, a miniseries about the Venezuelan terrorist nicknamed The Jackal, originally commissioned by France’s Canal+ and directed by Olivier Assayas – marking the auteur’s first foray into TV. Sundance got involved in the French/German production at the rough-cut stage and took a coproduction credit, though these days such collaborations see it much more heavily engaged in the creative process.
SundanceTV’s senior VP of scripted development and current, Christian Vesper, has been with the network for the past 12 years, playing a central role in its evolution – and Carlos, he says, was a pivotal moment.
“It made a lot of noise. We won best miniseries at the Golden Globes with a US$15m project against the US$150m project that was The Pacific. It led to a realisation in the higher levels of our organisation that the network could distinguish itself in the scripted space.”
At the time, that organisation was in the midst of major change. Sundance Channel parent Rainbow Media was being spun out of Cablevision as a separate entity to be named AMC Networks, housing fellow cable outlets AMC, IFC and WE tv.
Carlos stood out as a genuine differentiator for Sundance, which until then had predominantly been seen as an elite, art-house movie destination. For Vesper, the show was a clear statement of intent – aiming to establish the channel as a home to directors, producers, writers and talent with a theatrical vision that could be transposed to the small screen. “We want our shows to look and feel cinematic. We are still part of the Sundance family, and that’s important,” he says.
Restless (2012) came next – another mini – this time an adaptation of William Boyd’s novel of the same name about a young woman who discovers that her mother was recruited as a spy during World War Two. Hilary Bevan Jones’s Endor Productions made the two-parter, which garnered accolades including a Best Actress Emmy nomination for Charlotte Rampling.
“We’re big fans of William Boyd and the idea again is to work with artists and writers who are exceptional,” says Vesper. This was Sundance’s “first proper copro,” he adds, and its first alliance with the BBC – a relationship that was to deepen with Top of the Lake (2013), director Jane Campion’s first TV project in more than 20 years. The seven-part series, shot in New Zealand, starred big names including Elisabeth Moss (Mad Men), and centred on the disappearance of a pregnant 12-year-old.
It premiered at the 2013 Sundance Festival and aired at around the same time as Rectify, the channel’s first wholly owned homegrown series. Vesper describes the dual release as “an inflection point for the network – when we really meant to make a statement that we were in the scripted space for real.” He calls Rectify, heading into its third season next month, “a beautifully rendered piece of art television.” Top of the Lake, meanwhile, which has also been renewed, was “a fantastic opportunity” that BBC Worldwide and producer See-Saw brought to the network.
“We got involved very early in the script stage. It turned out to be a terrific brand signifier and audience generator, and we received a ton of award nominations – which we need to make some noise in such a crowded marketplace,” Vesper says, again emphasising the desire for projects with genuine artistic merit but also critical and commercial resonance.
After all, the competition is only getting stronger. SundanceTV is a sibling of AMC, which has been responsible for some of the greatest drama successes of the past decade – notably Mad Men and Breaking Bad. And in October 2014 it gained a new sister, after the AMC Networks mother ship paid US$200m for a 49.9% stake in BBC America – home to originals including Copper and, more recently, Intruders.
Outside of the family the world has been moving fast, with Starz (another regular BBC partner) stepping up efforts to displace HBO and Showtime, while History Channel, A&E and others have been moving into scripted against the backdrop of Netflix and Amazon redrawing the landscape completely.
SundanceTV last year aired the original version of French supernatural drama The Returned (Les Revenants), and together with Canal+ has become a coproduction partner on the upcoming second season – but in the meantime an English-language version penned by Lost scribe Carlton Cuse is in the works at A&E.
Vesper acknowledges the difference in reach between the two channels (A&E is in close to 100 million households, whereas SundanceTV is available in around 60 million) but believes his own network has several advantages over newer entrants. “It’s not as if we’ve shifted from comedy to drama or anything like that. Drama has always been our focus and it is our brand,” he says.
“We have a pre-existing relationship with Sundance, and the niche we seek to fill is somewhere between our big brothers at AMC and the kind of content associated with the Sundance Film Festival and Sundance Institute.
“We’re looking to work with and highlight the auteurs. We want heavily character-based storytelling that is distinct, perhaps because of the unique tales we tell or progressive kind of storytelling we’re willing to engage in.”
The Honourable Woman (main image), Hugo Blick’s political spy thriller, fell squarely into this category. It follows an Anglo-Israeli businesswoman who inherits her father’s arms business and with it all the trappings of his Middle Eastern dealings.
Maggie Gyllenhaal took the lead role, again underscoring the importance to SundanceTV of having big-name draws. “She’s a movie star, which guaranteed the series would be written about. And once people knew to pay attention, they realised the show had enormous quality. It’s an essential element to making things work,” says Vesper. The eight-part series was made by UK indie Drama Republic and Blick’s own business, Eight Rooks, again via the BBC’s commercial arm. It premiered on BBC2 in the UK on July 3, 2014 and on SundanceTV stateside on July 31, winning Gyllenhaal Best Actress in a Miniseries or Television Film at the 2015 Golden Globes.
In an age of simulcasts and collapsing release windows, a four-week transatlantic gap seems like a long time for a series around which so much anticipation was built. But Vesper argues this only helped build interest in the US, as UK buzz about the show began to travel.
The tables were turned with One Child, Guy Hibbert’s miniseries about an adopted woman who is suddenly called back to China by her birth mother to save the brother she never knew she had from execution for a murder he didn’t commit. It was coproduced with the BBC’s in-house production team, and although BBC2 was the lead broadcaster, SundanceTV aired the show on December 5 and 6 ahead of the BBC. “It’s a discussion on a per-show basis,” Vesper says.
Straight acquisitions are still on the agenda, with SundanceTV recently becoming the first major US network to pick up a German-language drama in the form of Deutschland 83, a Cold War thriller made by FremantleMedia’s UFA Fiction for RTL.
In wholly owned originals, The Red Road came from Aaron Guzikowski, who wrote the hit 2013 movie Prisoners. Martin Henderson and Game of Thrones’ Jason Momoa led the cast in another character-driven study, this time focusing on conflict between Native Americans in a deprived neighbourhood on the outskirts of white middle-class Manhattan. However, the show was cancelled after the end of its second season last month.
Meanwhile, in the pipeline is Hap and Leonard – SundanceTV’s third wholly owned original show and its first solo book adaptation, based on a series of novels by Joe Lansdale. The script is being penned by Sundance Film Festival alumni Jim Mickle and Nick Damici – again underscoring the ongoing importance of that association – with the show due to air next year.
Sundance Channel may have become SundanceTV and gone a significant way down the road to being recognised as a serious scripted TV player, but it will always owe a 10-gallon hat tip to Butch Cassidy’s notorious sidekick.
Few people would be surprised to learn that Vince Gilligan (Breaking Bad) and Game of Thrones duo David Benioff and DB Weiss were nominated in last year’s Emmys for Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series. But how many of us would know who won without resorting to Google? Well, the answer is Moira Walley-Beckett, who became the first solo woman to win in this category since 1994. Ironically, perhaps, Walley-Beckett won for a Breaking Bad episode called Ozymandias, thus beating Gilligan.
Walley-Beckett started her career as an actress and dancer, which probably explains why her first post-Breaking Bad project, Flesh and Bone (which she created), tells the story of a young dancer who has just joined a New York ballet company. Scheduled to air on Starz from November 8, the series features Sarah Hay (Black Swan) as “an emotionally wounded but transcendent ballerina navigating the dysfunction and glamour of the ballet world.”
Part of the challenge with projects like Flesh and Bone is ensuring the dance sequences look real – a bit like trying to write a script about footballers or stand-up comedians. Recognising this, Walley-Beckett made heavy use of real-life accomplished dancers.
While this will undoubtedly provide Flesh and Bone with an air of authenticity, it does present logistical difficulties in terms of renewing the show – because it’s hard for professional dancers to juggle their day jobs with their acting commitments. This may explain why Starz has already decreed Flesh and Bone will come to an end after a run of eight one-hour episodes. Chris Albrecht, the channel’s CEO, told Deadline: “Moira is one of the most talented auteurs in television today, and the work she and her team have done on Flesh and Bone is nothing short of spectacular (but) after seeing all the film, we realised this is not serialised TV, but rather an eight-hour movie.”
The Flesh and Bone trailer suggests the show will further enhance Walley-Beckett’s credentials, so it will be interesting to see what direction she heads in next.
While the Writing for a Drama Series Emmy category was dominated by US talent last year, Writing for a Miniseries, Movie or Dramatic Special resulted in a win for British scribe Steven Moffat. His work on Sherlock: His Last Vow trumped rivals on titles such as American Horror Story, Fargo, Luther, The Normal Heart and Treme.
Moffat has become something of a screenwriting icon thanks to his work on Doctor Who and Sherlock – and it is these projects that continue to occupy his time. His most recently finished Sherlock project is a special that will place the show’s central characters in the Victorian era, rather than the contemporary setting that has been used for the first three series. Commenting on this at a recent event, he said: “The special is its own thing. It’s not part of the run of three episodes… It’s Victorian. [Co-creator Mark Gatiss] and I wanted to do this, but it had to be a special, it had to be separate entity on its own. It’s in its own bubble.”
When not working on series four of Sherlock (due in 2016), Moffat’s remaining time is largely taken up with Doctor Who, which will return for series nine later this year. Although Moffat shares screenwriting duties on Doctor Who with a number of others, he has already confirmed that he is writing the first two episodes of the new series, a double-header. Titles for his episodes are The Magician’s Apprentice and The Witch’s Familiar.
The other Emmy-winning writer last year was comedian Louis CK, whose sitcom Louie secured him the Writing for a Comedy Series award. That’s quite an achievement when you see that he was up against writers from Episodes, Orange is the New Black, Silicon Valley and Veep. However, it’s not the first time CK has picked up this award, having previously won it in 2012.
Louie, which airs on FX, is an unusual show that combines stand-up and scripted comedy, often involving special guest stars. Echoing the earlier observation about Flesh and Bone, it manages to pull this off because CK is a genuine stand-up, not an actor pretending to be one. This blurring of genres is exacerbated by the fact that the show doesn’t always feel like a comedy. Its slow pacing and lack of rapid-fire gags make it much more like an indie film than a traditional sitcom, with some comparing Louie to Woody Allen’s work. This was certainly the case with So did the Fat Lady, the episode that won CK his 2014 Emmy. The last section of that episode was a poignant insight into the psychology of dating that barely resorted to jokes.
The recent fifth season of Louie finished on May 28, taking the total number of episodes to 61. There have been no announcements yet about the possibility of a sixth run. But alongside his commitment to this franchise, CK also has a deal to create new comedy series for FX. This has led to a greenlight for Baskets, a 10-part comedy that CK is co-writing with Zach Galifianakis. The series, which will also star Galifianakis, is scheduled to air on FX during 2016. It tells the story of Chip Baskets as he haphazardly pursues his dream of becoming a professional clown.
The Emmys, it should be noted, have a slightly less well-known sibling called The International Emmys which, as the name suggests, are for shows from outside the US. The International Emmys don’t have a specific award for writers, but 2014’s winner Utopia owed a lot to the unique voice of Dennis Kelly, who created and wrote the show. Kelly’s work to date has mostly been for theatre – with his best-known project being Matilda the Musical, co-written with musical comedian Tim Minchin. However, he also co-wrote sitcom Pulling for BBC3 with Sharon Horgan and, more recently, wrote Black Sea, a Kevin Macdonald film starring Jude Law.
Utopia is the story of five comic-book fans who become targets of a shadowy organisation called the ‘Network’ after they discover an unpublished manuscript for The Utopia Experiments, a sequel to a cult graphic novel that appears to predict a range of global catastrophes. It ran for two series on Channel 4 and was then cancelled, much to the irritation of its fans. C4’s response was that “it’s always painful to say goodbye to shows we love, but it’s a necessary part of being able to commission new drama, a raft of which is launching on the channel throughout 2015.”
There’s no word yet on what Kelly’s next screen project might be, but Utopia is set to get a new lease of life in the US. HBO, no less, has ordered a US version that will be directed by David Fincher (Se7en) and written by Gillian Flynn, who worked together on the film version of the latter’s novel Gone Girl. All it needs now is for Scarlett Johansson and Carey Mulligan to sign up as stars and it would be the coolest conspiracy drama in the history of Hollywood.
And finally, C21’s Drama Summit has started revealing the identities of this year’s speakers. One standout session will see writer Stephen Poliakoff examine his present and past work and discuss the challenge of writing drama in the 21st century.
Poliakoff started his career as a playwright, coming to prominence in the 1970s. While he still writes the occasional work for the stage, the balance of his output has moved much more towards film and TV in recent years. Among his best-known works (all for the BBC in the UK) are Perfect Strangers, The Lost Prince and Dancing on the Edge, which was nominated for three Golden Globes, winning one. His latest project, which he will discuss at the Drama Summit, is Close to the Enemy.
A six-part series for BBC2, Close to the Enemy is a Cold War drama set in a bomb-damaged London hotel in the aftermath of the Second World War. It stars Jim Sturgess (One Day) as an intelligence officer trying to persuade a captured German scientist to work for the British RAF on developing a jet engine. The production is being shot in London and Liverpool with planned transmission in 2016 on BBC2. International rights are with All3Media International.
The stress of Sarah Treem’s first major project almost led her to quit television. Now, as showrunner on The Affair and following a stint on House of Cards, she couldn’t be happier. So what changed?
If there’s such a thing as a perfect marriage in television, it might be between Showtime and its Golden Globe-winning drama The Affair.
The US premium cable network is best known as the home of political thriller Homeland, period piece Masters of Sex, and medical comedy-drama Nurse Jackie.
But it seems there was something missing from its schedule until network president David Nevins invited Sarah Treem (main image) and Hagai Levi to pitch a new series about the emotional fall-out that takes place when Noah, a teacher, and waitress Alison begin an affair. Uniquely, the show is told from the viewpoint of both Noah, played by Dominic West, and Ruth Wilson’s Alison.
The Affair debuted on Showtime in October 2014 and, just three months later in January 2015, Treem was on stage to collect the Golden Globe for best drama ahead of fellow nominees Game of Thrones, Downton Abbey, The Good Wife, and House of Cards. Wilson also won best actress in a drama series, while West was nominated for best actor.
A second run of the show was ordered halfway through the first 10-episode season. Production began in May, with The Affair due to return to screens this October.
Co-creator and showrunner Treem recalls: “We ended up pitching it to them and Nevins just kind of bought it in the room. He said he’d been looking for something in this world for a long time and he liked the concept.
“He had wanted to do something about marriage and thought this was a really great twist. We pitched it as a show about what makes a relationship work or fail, but within the guise of an affair, so it was a right-place, right-time scenario.”
Treem says The Affair aims to be honest in its storytelling, setting aside the plot twists and supernatural elements that have become common motifs in modern television drama and instead creating a plot more relevant to the lives of its audience.
And it was something of a surprise that the first season was then rewarded with the Golden Globe for best drama. “We had just premiered a couple of months earlier so it was really quick and quite a shock,” Treem admits. “Story-wise, the second season, in terms of complexity and skill, is better than the first, so I’m excited to tell the story on a richer level.
“I would absolutely love it if we won another Golden Globe, but if we don’t, that’s OK too. The fact we get to do the show again and keep going with the story is its own reward. That means more to me than having a medal for it.”
The Affair’s team of writers reconvened in LA earlier this year to break down the season two story arc. They discussed each of the 12 episodes in detail and, specifically, considered what happens to each character. They then talked over the first seven episodes further before the writers separated to pen their scripts.
Treem explains: “Our method is to sit around in a room for a couple of days and really go through what each episode is about and what the journey of the individual characters needs to be. Then we break them up into beats and come up with a rough outline in the room, and an individual writer will take the outline and write it up. We’ll give comments on it and it will go to the network for approval. And then that writer will write the episode.
“We’re dividing up the stories so it’s not just Noah and Alison’s perspectives for the second season. We’re bringing in some new perspectives, which give the season a more prismatic feel and make the storytelling more complex, which I really like.”
The Affair marks Treem’s first foray into showrunning. Her TV break came as a writer on all three seasons of In Treatment for HBO, where under an overall deal she also wrote and produced How to Make It in America. She then wrote and co-executive produced on the first season of Netflix’s breakout original drama House of Cards.
“I love the job. But it’s been a really steep learning curve,” the California-based writer says. “The process this year is a lot smoother than it was last year. Showrunning is basically good management. It’s about leading people and guiding people toward a common vision but not in a way that squelches their instincts and makes them feel like they’re just cogs in a wheel.
“What I found challenging in the first season was the act of creating something brand new out of nothing. Birthing a show is a very different skill from managing people. It takes a certain amount of solecism and, frankly, a narcissistic focus, which doesn’t let other people in that easily.
“I think the reason everyone says the second season is easier than the first is that in the second you have the blueprint: everybody knows what the show is and everyone is familiar with the characters and their psychologies, so you can be more open and let go of the reins a lot because you know where you stand. It’s just easier. I’ve really enjoyed the process this year.”
Treem’s rise to become showrunner of an award-winning drama after working on just three other TV shows might be considered meteoric, but she doesn’t see it that way. Writing stage plays from an early age, Treem had graduated from the Yale School of Drama when one of her scripts was passed to HBO, which sent it on to Rodrigo Garcia, the showrunner of the first season of In Treatment. The series was adapted from the Israeli format BeTipul, about a psychologist and his weekly sessions with patients.
“I got really lucky,” Treem admits. “Rodrigo read this play that was kind of wild and he loved it and hired me sight unseen. He just called me up and offered me the job.”
After writing the character of Sophie, played by Mia Wasikowska, Treem returned to teaching in Maine, but was later called to LA to become the on-set writer for In Treatment – a role that almost led her to quit television.
“It was so hard that first year,” she says. “It was crazy because that year we were doing 54 episodes, and I was the only on-set writer. I was 26 or 27, I’d never been to Hollywood, I knew nothing about television production and I was really out of my element, exhausted and under a tremendous amount of stress.
“So I thought maybe this was not for me. After that season, I flew back to New York and told my agents to never put me up for television again. They told me to take a vacation.”
Treem changed her mind, however, when HBO offered her an overall deal, and she continued writing on In Treatment for two more years. During the off-season, she also worked on comedy-drama How to Make It in America, about two entrepreneurs trying to find success in New York City’s fashion scene.
After Treem’s HBO deal ran out, Beau Willimon, who she had met when she was a 19-year-old theatre intern, invited her to join a new series called House of Cards. Treem worked on the show during its first season.
The first year of House of Cards, she says, was “like the Wild West. There were no creative executives at Netflix, so nobody was giving us notes. There was so much money, so much talent, and the rules were getting broken and rewritten all over the place.
“We kept joking that if we were really good, we were going to win a Webby (the awards that honour excellence on the internet), because we didn’t know if anyone would watch the show, and then it just blew up beyond anyone’s wildest dreams.”
While House of Cards was shooting its first season, Treem was already looking towards her next project, The Affair, which was co-created with Hagai Levi, the creator of BeTipul and a producer on In Treatment. Expecting her first child, she wanted to set up a project after the birth and so wrote the pilot on nights and weekends, and then pitched it to Showtime when she was seven months pregnant.
“We felt that was a pretty natural evolution out of In Treatment, which is where we met,” Treem says of The Affair’s creation with Levi. “In Treatment is about perspective and how having to explain yourself to somebody else is so very difficult. Everyone is trapped in their own consciousness. As writers, that idea appealed to us on a thematic level, and then Hagai said, ‘Why don’t we do a show about an affair but from two perspectives so we can double-down on that idea?’
“We spent some time coming up with the characters and figuring out the worlds, and it grew really organically. We wrote the script on spec; we didn’t develop it with any particular network, so we really had a chance to let it incubate on its own.”
It’s that freedom that Treem attributes, in part, to the success of Netflix and the growth of original drama on other VoD platforms, and an increasing number of cable channels.
“Netflix exploded the marketplace in this way that has reinvigorated the creativity of writers,” she says. “There are now so many places your show can get made that you don’t have to think, ‘I need to write the type of show AMC or another network is going to buy,’ which was the mentality we had for a while. Now you just write the show – write whatever the heck you want – and someone will probably be interested in it if it’s good. It’s really freeing.”
Despite the fact season two of The Affair is still in the relatively early stages of production, Treem is already plotting the storyline for season three.
“I have a pretty clear idea for season three,” she reveals. “My concept for season four is a little vaguer. When we pitched it, we pitched a three-season arc. So we’ve always known pretty clearly how the show goes through the third season. How it evolves beyond that remains to be seen.”
As one of a growing number of female showrunners working in television, Treem says it feels “like a real watershed year for women in television,” and describes the emergence of limited-episode event series as network television’s answer to cable channels’ hugely successful slow-burn, narrative-driven dramas.
And having started in television writing on the adaptation of an Israeli series, she says remakes can work when people take the concept and inspiration of a show and make it their own. “Where people get into trouble is when they copy something from another culture word for word and shot for shot. There’s a lot that’s lost in translation.”
Looking back on her career so far, Treem adds: “I got lucky that my first job was In Treatment, which was a very niche show, but it was incredibly prestigious and we had a tremendous amount of freedom in the writing. It was a writers’ show because there was one person writing each character, so I got very close to the actors and actresses I was writing for and it really became a team effort.”
There are reports this week that UK-based indie producer Drama Republic is developing David Nicholls’ hilarious and poignant novel Us for the BBC. The UK pubcaster is yet to confirm the project but it is likely to be a three- or four-part miniseries, with acclaimed British playwright Nick Payne lined up to write the screenplay. It’s the kind of high-profile book-based project that would sit comfortably in the Sunday evening slot that has been occupied in recent times by The Casual Vacancy and Jonathan Norrell & Mr Strange.
Nicholls has written three previous novels, two of which were adapted as movies (Starter for Ten and One Day). So the fact this one is being lined up as a TV project is another indication of the shift in the balance of power towards small-screen drama.
The switch from film to TV will suit Nicholls’ work, which is narratively and emotionally very rich. In the case of Us, the story is told from the point of view of Douglas, a married man whose wife Connie announces that she plans to leave him when their 17-year-old son Albie goes to college. Douglas takes the two of them on holiday to Europe to try to convince Connie to change her mind, while also hoping it will be an opportunity to emotionally reconnect with his son. Inevitably, the trip doesn’t go to plan.
It’s interesting that Payne will handle scriptwriting duties, given that Nicholls has a good TV screenwriting track record himself. Having first come to prominence as a writer on series such as Cold Feet and Rescue Me, he recently wrote 7.39 for the BBC, about a man who starts an affair with a woman he meets on a commuter train. Aired in 2014, that project drew an audience of 5.7 million across two episodes on consecutive nights, which isn’t too bad. Perhaps, though, the decision has been swayed by the poor reviews that the movie version of One Day received, with the LA Times calling it a “heartbreaking disappointment of a film.” There’s no question that One Day the novel is far superior to the film, so maybe Us will benefit from some outside input, with Nicholls presumably on hand in an executive producer role.
Just last night, I was thinking to myself that there aren’t enough dramas about female serial killers. So imagine my surprise when I saw that World Productions (Line of Duty) is making a two-part drama for ITV about Mary Ann Cotton, a Victorian serial killer who used arsenic to kill three of her husbands so she could claim against their insurance policies. Called Dark Angel, the production is based on David Wilson’s book Mary Ann Cotton: Britain’s First Female Serial Killer and was commissioned by ITV director of drama Steve November and controller of drama Victoria Fea.
As far as anything in this life is a dead cert, this is it. Why? Because it will be directed by Brian Percival (Downton Abbey) and star Joanne Froggatt (also Downton). Anyone familiar with Downton will recall that Froggatt’s character Anna Bates spent some time under suspicion of murder – so there’s a neat link between the two shows.
Fea said of the show: “The combination of a tautly written script, an outstanding cast and great producers in World Productions make this a really exciting addition to the slate.” Dark Angel will start filming in August in Yorkshire and County Durham. It will be supported by Screen Yorkshire’s Yorkshire Content Fund, while Endemol Shine International is distributing it globally.
Still with ITV, the channel has also just commissioned six more episodes of WW2 drama Home Fires. Inspired by Julie Summers’ non-fiction book Jambusters, it follows a group of women in a rural community during the war. It was created and written for TV by Simon Block (Lewis, The Shooting of Thomas Hurndall).
WW2 has inspired a surprising number of drama series in recent years. The UK’s other recent offerings include the BBC’s Land Girls and ITV’s Foyle’s War, while Canada has given us Bomb Girls (set in a munitions factory during WW2) and, more recently, X Company. The latter is a spy thriller that debuted on CBC in February 2015. After the show’s first season generated a good response, CBC quickly took the decision to give the series a second run of 10 episodes.
WW2 has also inspired some good dramas out of continental Europe. The most high profile is Germany’s Generation War, which is one of the few German dramas to have secured sales to the English-speaking market. Another interesting title is Un Village Français (A French Village), a French show created by Frédéric Krivine, Emmanuel Daucé and Philippe Triboit. Set in a fictional village in German-occupied France, the show first aired on France 3 in 2009 and has slowly but surely picked up a loyal international fanbase. With a seventh and final series planned for 2016, the entire oeuvre was sold by 100% Distribution to MHz Networks in the US (and has also sold to MBC in Korea).
Explaining why Un Village Français has found an audience in such diverse markets, Cecilia Rossignol, director of sales & acquisitions at 100% Distribution, said it is because the show is not primarily a story of war. “It is about people who find themselves in extreme situations and must make choices. In this, it is a universal series.”
In recent weeks, we have discussed the success of Jane the Virgin, a Venezuelan telenovela that was remade for The CW in the US. With a second series recently recommissioned by The CW, there are now reports that Mediaset in Spain is to make a local version of the show. The deal underlines the beauty of having a strong formattable scripted franchise. Not only can buyers choose between licensing the Venezuelan or the US format, they can also acquire either of the completed series. With every new completed series the options increase, turning small local successes into globally successful franchises.
On a separate note, SVoD service Netflix announced this week that it will continue its rapid global roll-out with launches in Italy, Portugal and Spain during October. Echoing the recent launch in France, this may result in a new wave of investment in local productions. It might also provide a way for shows from these countries to break into the English-speaking markets (Netflix could, for example, acquire global rights to a local show and then test it in different territories if it performs well in its originating market). Overall, Netflix now has 62.3 million subscribers and is aiming to have services in around 200 countries within two years.
When Starz MD Carmi Zlotnik attended the C21 Drama Summit in London last Autumn, he talked about wanting to grow his channel’s subscriber base by targeting underserved audiences. Citing an example, he explained how Starz would reach out to the female audience with Outlander, a historical time-travel scripted series based on the best-selling novel by Diana Gabaldon.
The first 16-part series of Outlander concluded at the end of last month. And while its final two episodes focused on tough subjects such as brutality, torture and male rape, the series has achieved its objectives. With Zap2it referring to Outlander as “Game of Thrones for Soccer Moms,” the show has attracted an average of around 2.5 million women per episode. What’s more, Nielsen estimates 64% more women than men watch the show, which is an unusual profile for a fantasy-based project.
A number of factors explain Outlander’s female appeal. At a superficial level, it helps that the show has a hunky male lead in the shape of Sam Heughan (similar to Poldark in the UK). But more important is the fact the show is told from a female perspective, with a romantic narrative and solid moral values at its heart. Contrast that with Game of Thrones, which (brilliant though it is) is fundamentally a story about power and patriarchy, in which the women are either are either damsels in distress, psychotic megalomaniacs or exotic mystics. Even the women that run counter to gender stereotype (Daenerys Targaryen, Arya Stark, Brienne of Tarth and Ygritte) are all recognisable female subsets of the fantasy genre.
So Outlander has done its job, the reward for which is a second series that will have a minimum of 13 episodes. Should that also prove successful, it could run and run – because there are currently nine books in the series. Internationally, the show is distributed Sony Pictures Television (SPT), which has sold the title to an estimated 87 territories across Latin America and Europe.
Quite a few of SPT’s deals are with SVoD players such as Clarovideo, Viaplay, Sohu and Lightbox, so it’s not easy to get a sense of how well the show has resonated with audiences outside the US. But there are a couple of indications that Outlander can travel in space as well as time. In Canada, for example, it attracted almost one million viewers per episode for specialty channel Showcase. Reinforcing the results from the US, it has been the number-one specialty programme among women aged 25 to 54 this year. In Australia, meanwhile, it debuted strongly for Foxtel’s drama channel Soho in autumn 2014, delivering the second highest audience of the year.
An interesting side story is that Outlander also generates a lot of social media traffic. For the first season, Starz ran eight episodes and then gave the show a break. It then brought the show back on April 4 (episode 9 – aka the mid-season premiere). When it did, the show trended on Facebook for more than 12 hours. It also ranked second in Nielsen Ratings for Twitter conversation volume among all television series on premiere day, and trended at number five on Twitter during Saturday’s 21.00 ET/PT premiere screening.
This fits a wider pattern. Most social media stats in the last couple of years have supported the thesis that women use Facebook and Twitter more than men to talk about TV shows (both before and during transmission). So there’s clearly the potential for an audience amplification effect if you can get women to take ownership of a scripted series – because they are then more likely to champion it via social media than men are.
Another show that demonstrates the cross-platform power of female-centric shows is ABC Family’s Pretty Little Liars, which returned for a sixth season earlier this week. Although the new season kicked off with slightly lower ratings than in previous years, it remains one of the top shows in the US among females aged 12-49. It’s also a social media phenomenon, with new stats showing it has topped 110 million tweets, 2.6 million Instagram followers, one million Snapchat friends and 13 million Facebook fans.
Lest men should start to feel there’s no room for them in the living room with all this fem-centric drama, let’s turn to the History channel’s testosterone-fuelled Western Texas Rising, which secured five million and 4.1 million viewers for its first two episodes (May 25, May 26, Live+3 ratings) respectively. According to History, this is “the best cable miniseries start in Live+3 since The Bible.”
Directed by Roland Joffé and starring Bill Paxton, Brendan Fraser, Ray Liotta and Olivier Martinez, Texas Rising is produced by A+E Studios, ITV Studios America and Thinkfactory Media. It is distributed outside the US by ITV Studios Global Entertainment. In terms of its editorial setup, History has clearly struck gold with Bill Paxton, an articulate and charming actor who was at MipTV to help promote the show. He previously starred in Hatfield & McCoys, another storming success for History. In terms of where History is going next with its dramas, try reading Clive Whittingham’s Q&A with Dirk Hoogstra, the general manager of History and H2.
A couple of weeks ago we expressed our concern that the BBC’s period fantasy Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell might not recover from a modest opening on May 17. Episode two on May 24 confirmed these fears, with the show sliding from 4.5 million to 2.6 million. Already lagging behind the average for its slot (Sunday 2100), the seven-part series will struggle to regain momentum.
Channel 4’s offbeat procedural No Offence, penned by Paul Abbott, is also drifting. Having started strongly with 2.5 million (way ahead of the slot average), episode four recorded the series’ lowest rating to date at just under 1.3 million (though there’s no information yet about any boost from time-shifted viewing).
Hopefully, the No Offence’s ratings have now bottomed out, because it would be good to see a second series. Abbot and his US-style writing team have created a distinctive piece of work, which centres on a strong group of female characters who are not constantly having to justify their status to male colleagues. The show, which has attracted positive reviews in the UK, has also introduced a superb cast of Down’s syndrome actors. All in all, it’s done enough to deserve a second bow.
In scripted terms, the next few weeks are important for Channel 4. Aside from the climax of No Offence, it has the launch of Humans to look forward to. Based on the acclaimed Swedish drama Real Humans, it imagines a world in which families own ‘synths,’ highly developed, artificially intelligent servants. Produced by Kudos, the eight-part series will air on C4 on June 14. It will then air on AMC in the US on June 28.
The original version ran on SVT in Sweden for two seasons (20 episodes total). The last episode aired in February 2014 and there has been no news since about whether a third series will be greenlit, though there is an outline and scripts should SVT decide to revive the production. Real Humans has sold to 50 countries worldwide, but has not hit English-language markets yet, presumably because of fears it will interfere with the launch of the English language spin-off.
American showrunner Kurt Sutter got his big break as a writer on FX crime drama The Shield. But it was his next project, Sons of Anarchy, that established him as one of scripted TV’s most acclaimed auteurs. Across seven series (again on FX), Sutter created a cult following for his gritty tale of an outlaw motorcycle club. A strong ratings performer, the show’s finale attracted a massive 6.4 million viewers when it aired last December.
There was talk for a while that Sutter would move on to a Sons prequel next, set in the 1960s. But instead he elected to write a pilot for FX called The Bastard Executioner, about a traumatised 14th century warrior who quits the battlefield and becomes an executioner. This week, FX announced it had greenlit a 10-part series, presumably hoping Bastard will be its answer to HBO’s Game of Thrones and Starz’ Outlander (without the soppy bits).
Commenting on that decision, Fox Television Group chairmen and CEOs Gary Newman and Dana Walden, whose Fox 21 TV Studios (Fox21TVS) will produce the project with FX Productions, said: “The Bastard Executioner, written by Kurt and directed by the talented Paris Barclay, is dangerous, brilliant, emotional and undeniable. This is the perfect follow-up to Sons and another huge event series for FX. Viewers are in for a wild and spellbinding ride.”
Sutter, according to industry folklore, spent time with motorcycle clubs while researching Sons Of Anarchy – the writer equivalent of method acting. So it will be interesting to see how he gets under the skin of this subject (hopefully without too many casualties). Explaining why he has opted for swords and sandals, he said: “I love history. I love theology. I love blood. It’s been very satisfying weaving fact and fiction to create a new mythology that combines all these elements. I love working with FX and Fox21TVS. They’ve been my family for 15 years. They not only tolerate me, they embrace my extremely disturbing storytelling sensibilities.”
Biopics and based-on-true-story dramas are stalwarts of the scripted business, though they invariably court controversy. Such is the pressure to create narrative jeopardy and shades of dark and light that writers generally end up turning some of their characters into villains, in order that their heroes and heroines can be thrown into sharp relief. So it will be interesting to see how Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski manage this process on American Crime Story, a true-crime TV franchise they are creating for FX.
First up is a series entitled The People v O.J. Simpson, a retelling of the murder trial that gripped the world in 1995. With Cuba Gooding Jr as Simpson and a supporting cast including John Travolta and David Schwimmer, this looks like a dead cert ratings hit.
Alexander and Karaszewski have a long, illustrious and critically acclaimed track record as writing partners on offbeat biopics, usually in the form of movies. As far back as 1994 they worked with Tim Burton on Ed Wood. Subsequent projects included The People vs Larry Flynt, Man on the Moon and Auto Focus, before they came full circle and made another biopic with Burton last year, called Big Eyes. All this will stand them in good stead for the Simpson project, though the challenge will be how they harness their distinctive humour in a way that works with such tough material.
A biopic is also making headlines in the UK this week, with ITV announcing plans for a drama called Churchill’s Secret, set during Winston Churchill’s second stint as prime minister in the 1950s. Based on Jonathan Smith’s book The Churchill Secret: KBO, the two-hour drama will star Michael Gambon as the ailing political icon.
The writing job has been handed to Stewart Harcourt, who has built up a formidable array of production credits over the past two decades. After writing on shows such as Peak Practice, Jericho, Marple, Poirot and Treasure Island, Harcourt was named as lead writer on ITV’s Love and Marriage in 2013. As well as Churchill’s Secret, he is also in the process of writing two Maigret detective stories for ITV. The latter project stars Rowan Atkinson, though today’s fun factoid link is that Michael Gambon played Maigret in a previous TV adaptation in the early 1990s.
Another big US scripted project grinding into action is Lifetime’s The Clan of the Cave Bear, which is based on the first book in Jean M. Auel’s Earth’s Children series. The Clan of the Cave Bear is one of those books that neither you nor your friends have ever read, but which has somehow established itself as a global publishing phenomenon. At last count, the six books that make up Auel’s epic caveman saga had sold around 45 million copies worldwide. The story was also turned into a film starring Daryl Hannah in 1986.
The new TV version is only at pilot stage right now, but The Clan of the Cave Bear is one of those projects that could run for years if the writer, Linda Woolverton, pulls it off.
Her credentials suggest she’s got as good a chance as anybody. Hit machine Woolverton was the first woman to write an animated feature for Disney when she penned Beauty and the Beast. She also wrote screenplays for The Lion King, Alice in Wonderland and Maleficent – all very successful projects with plenty of strong female characters (which will be crucial to her interpretation of Cave Bear). When not discovering her inner cavewoman, she will be writing the screenplay for Alice Through the Looking Glass.
Having grown up as a fan of the comic, Daredevil showrunner Steven DeKnight describes his role as a ‘dream come true.’ He tells DQ of his vision for the show and explains how he’s handling the pressure of leading Marvel’s Netflix charge.
It takes just a cursory glance at Steven DeKnight’s CV to know he has an enviable track record.
As well as credits for Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Smallville, he was the creative force behind US premium cable network Starz’ swords-and-sandals epic Spartacus.
And now he is overseeing Marvel’s Daredevil, the opening phase of Marvel Comics’ attempts to recreate the critical and commercial success of its cinematic universe on the small screen.
The 13-part series, which launched worldwide on US VoD giant Netflix on April 10, tells the story of Matt Murdock. Blinded as a young boy but empowered by extraordinary senses, he fights against injustice by day as a lawyer and by night as Daredevil in modern-day Hell’s Kitchen, New York City.
DeKnight (pictured top alongside Charlie Cox as the masked titular character) executive produces alongside Drew Goddard and Marvel’s head of television, Jeph Loeb. The show is produced by Marvel Television in association with ABC Studios for Netflix.
It was only by chance, however, that DeKnight got the gig, with Goddard pulling out of showrunning duties to develop Marvel’s Sinister Six for the big screen.
“They reached out to me to see if I would be interested in hopping on board and taking over as showrunner,” DeKnight explains.
“I read the scripts and I thought they were fantastic. I went over to their offices and they walked me through the plan for the season, and I thought that was phenomenal, so I signed on. It was an easy choice for me because I grew up reading Marvel Comics. I’ve been a huge fan since I was a little kid, so it was a dream come true to be working in the Marvel universe.”
DeKnight isn’t just a fan of Marvel, though. He is a fan of Daredevil, which made the decision to join the series even easier. “I’ve read Daredevil since I was a kid,” he says. “I was a huge fan of many of the incredibly talented people who worked on the comic, particularly Frank Miller and Brian Michael Bendis. They really spoke to me, especially Bendis’s work, which had the look and feel of a show that I thought would be great to bring to the screen.”
That show is dark and moody, set in the shadows and barely lit alleyways of a brooding city. “I wanted it to be really grounded and gritty, which is what they were shooting for before I came on board,” says DeKnight.
“One of the things that really excited me about the project is that we can push the adult content. Since I came on, we’ve always called it more PG-15 – it’s not quite an R rating, but we kiss right up to it.
“Netflix has much more adult, edgy kind of material. If Daredevil had an R rating, I don’t think they would care. But of course, with Marvel, we don’t want to alienate younger fans. If you do have kids under 15, I’d suggest you watch a few episodes first yourself before you roll it out because it’s a very different animal in the Marvel universe.”
Daredevil is the first of four Marvel series coming to Netflix as part of a deal, announced in November 2013, which will see them share storylines, characters, cast members and settings akin to the cinematic universe that has struck box office gold time and time again since Iron Man came to the big screen in 2008.
The second Netflix series, A.K.A. Jessica Jones, is already in production and due to air later this year, while series based on the characters of Iron Fist and Luke Cage will follow, before all four superheroes unite in miniseries The Defenders.
Leading off Marvel’s latest television attack, following the launch of ABC’s Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Agent Carter, did DeKnight feel any pressure? “It’s the cornerstone of 60 hours of television. There’s a huge amount of pressure to get it right, but you have to trust your instincts and tell the story you really want to tell and that the audience will enjoy.”
Yet this isn’t the first screen adaptation of Daredevil. Ben Affleck starred as the masked crimefighter in a 2003 film that earned mixed reviews and alienated fans of the original comic. DeKnight says his version is “so different” from the film. “I thought Ben Affleck gave his all, and there were a lot of incredibly talented people in that movie, but anyone who’s ever done TV or a movie knows sometimes it just doesn’t work out.
“The movie was also before Marvel Studios got up and running with Iron Man and controlled its own content, which has made a huge difference in how these characters are portrayed. We came at the show with a different perspective. We approached it first and foremost as a crime drama, with the superhero element laid on top of it. For me, the most exciting scenes weren’t the run-and-jump, they were the more emotional scenes that we get to do with characters. Over 13 hours, you can tell a story about who the hero is, which I found really interesting.”
One thing DeKnight isn’t worrying about, though, is how the four Netflix/Marvel series will entangle themselves in the same universe. “Quite frankly, the onus is on the other series,” he says. “We were the first. Jessica Jones had a writing staff and they were working on it, but Luke Cage and Iron Fist didn’t have showrunners and weren’t getting off the ground. So really, the idea of the whole integrated universe is part and parcel with the other shows, since we were out there by ourselves. The true Marvel fans will see quite a few Easter eggs that set up things that will hopefully happen in the future, so there are some very subtle tie-ins with some of the other shows.”
It was after writing a spec script for sci-fi series Deep Space Nine that DeKnight got his big television break. The UCLA graduate began writing spec feature scripts, and later turned to television. But nobody wanted to read his Deep Space Nine write-up, so he put it in a drawer and, he says, “forgot about it.”
A year later, he was contacted by a friend who was working on a new MTV show called Undressed, headed by The Killing Fields director Roland Joffé. DeKnight recalls: “He said he was working on a show that was very good and that if it got picked up he could get my stuff to Joffé’s people. About six months later, the show gets picked up. It was a kind of teen sex comedy. My friend calls up and tells me to send my stuff. All I had was this Deep Space Nine script – which was not a teen sex comedy. But it was one of those career miracles – they read it and liked it, and that’s how I got my first job.”
From there, he wrote a spec script for Buffy the Vampire Slayer that found its way into the hands of creator Joss Whedon. He was discussing joining Buffy’s animated spin-off that was in development when Whedon offered him the chance to write an episode of the live-action series. DeKnight agreed, and as soon as production had finished on his episode, he was called back to the set, where Whedon offered him a full-time writing job.
“That was really the moment that started my career as it is now – Joss taking me on,” DeKnight says. “I worked on a couple of seasons of Buffy and the last two seasons of Angel, and Joss really trains showrunners. He has you involved in everything: breaking the stories, working the stories. He also has you in casting, on the set, editing, and in all the meetings.
“He wants everyone to learn how to do it all, and he’s also the one who gave me my first shot at directing, on Angel. So he was a huge influence, and I learnt so much from him.”
After Angel completed its five-season run in 2004, DeKnight teamed with Jeph Loeb, now the head of Marvel Television, on Superman prequel Smallville, and later joined Viva Laughlin, a Hugh Jackman-led musical he describes as “one of the hugest disasters of the decade, just a complete clusterfuck.”
The show, a remake of British musical comedy drama Blackpool, was a critical and ratings disaster from the start and was pulled by US network CBS after just two episodes. DeKnight and fellow co-exec producer Tyler Bensinger were halfway through shooting episode seven when they got the news.
“It was seriously one of the most bizarre experiences ever, but I wouldn’t change anything,” he says. “It gave me a chance to spearhead a show for the first time and it was a real trial by fire. I’ll never forget when we aired on a special night right after CSI on a Thursday and lost 10 million viewers. The second episode was that Sunday and we lost millions more viewers, then on the Monday at work we got the call to say we’d been canned. We all saw the writing on the wall.”
It was during a subsequent writers’ strike that DeKnight was reacquainted with Whedon who, while the pair were picketing outside Fox Studios, offered him a place on the writing staff for his latest series Dollhouse.
And it was as he was preparing to direct an episode of the Fox series that DeKnight was asked by his agent whether he was interested in joining Evil Dead director Sam Raimi on a gladiator-style series for US premium cable network Starz.
“In the meeting I found out it was Spartacus, which froze my soul because I’m a big fan of the Kirk Douglas/Stanley Kubrick version. But, bizarrely, it was almost the meeting that didn’t change my life. They said, ‘Great, can you start on Monday?’ And I said, ‘No, I can’t start for another nine weeks – I’m directing an episode of Dollhouse.’”
Starz decided to look elsewhere, but DeKnight was informed by his agent halfway through his directing duties that the network hadn’t found anyone else and wanted to know if he was still interested. Of course, he said yes.
DeKnight describes Spartacus, which ran for three seasons and spawned prequel miniseries Spartacus: Gods of the Arena, as a “39-episode experiment” filmed in the style of blockbuster 300 against a green screen. His deal with Starz also saw him develop military sci-fi series Incursion, which has been put on hold, and adapt Italian crime drama Romanzo Criminale.
As his contract ran out, Goddard left Daredevil, and DeKnight was on hand to take on the show and lead Marvel’s Netflix invasion.
“There’s never been a better time to be in scripted drama,” he says. “There’s so many opportunities and so many people taking chances on things that are different. Shows like Fargo, True Detective, Better Call Saul and Game of Thrones. There are just so many opportunities to do things outside the box.
“The explosion of cable, premium cable and now new media places like Netflix, Amazon and Hulu gives you so much opportunity. The downside is you’re no longer doing 22 episodes a year on a major network, so the financial benefit incentive is lower – but it’s more than a fair trade for the amount of creative room you get nowadays.”
Those of you who attended Channel 21’s International Drama Summit in London last autumn may have seen the trailer for a new French crime drama called Witnesses (Les Témoins). Created by Hervé Hadmar and Marc Herpoux, the eerie six-part series begins with a series of corpses being placed in various homes.
Roll forward a few months and Witnesses has emerged as a huge hit for French public channel France 2. Having debuted on March 18 to an excellent 5.3 million viewers (Mediametrie), it went on to average 4.3 million (17.4% share) across its run. This makes it the natural successor to other breakout French hits such as Spiral, Braquo and much-discussed supernatural thriller The Returned.
Witnesses’ strong ratings (and the reward of a second series) will be welcome news to all those international broadcasters that acquired the series from Newen Distribution ahead of its launch on France 2. Presumably inspired by the international success of The Returned, Channel 4 (UK), RTL Crime (Germany), NRK2 (Norway) and SBS (Australia) were among the first to act. With Norway due to show the series in primetime, it looks as though the French are doing a good job of reclaiming the word ‘noir.’
The next obvious question is whether the Witnesses format will appeal to US broadcasters. There is undoubtedly strong demand in the US for good scripted ideas, but a poor showing for Gracepoint (based on UK series Broadchurch but regarded as similar in tone to Witnesses) and a modest outing for A&E Network’s version of The Returned may lead to caution. One factor that may influence a decision on Witnesses is how the original fares on Netflix, which began streaming it on May 1.
One of the surprise hits of recent months is Wolf Hall, the BBC2 drama based on Hilary Mantel’s novel about the life of British King Henry VIII’s advisor Thomas Cromwell. Starring the formidable Mark Rylance and superbly scripted by Peter Straughan, Wolf Hall opted against resorting to the sugar-rush scripted devices that are often used to hook in and hold on to TV viewers. Indeed, with its sombre lighting, stately pace and intricate plotting, it was exactly the kind of series that could have erred on the side of being worthy but dull.
Instead, it has proved the point that audiences often have more intellectual stamina than broadcasters give them credit for. After a strong showing on BBC2, Wolf Hall’s premiere episode on PBS Masterpiece secured 4.4 million viewers (Live+7). Masterpiece executive producer and drama industry veteran Rebecca Eaton called it “yet another high-water mark in Masterpiece’s history”.
Anyone familiar with TV ratings will know that most dramas tend to shed viewers after their first episode as a percentage of the audience decides a show is not for them. So the acid test is really whether it can then sustain its performance from then on. Judged in this way, ITV four-part thriller Safe House is a solid hit. Starring Christopher Eccleston (The Leftovers, Fortitude, Doctor Who), the series started with 5.3 million viewers and then dropped to 4.8 million in week two. However, it has just concluded with 4.75 million (live+1), making it the top-performing drama in the UK outside soaps. The show’s distributor is All3Media International, which has not provided any news yet on international sales. But with strong UK ratings and Eccleston attached, it should do brisk business abroad.
At MipTV last month, Electus CEO Ben Silverman spent a lot of time talking up the prospects of Jane the Virgin, the US adaptation of a Venezuelan telenovela that has been airing for the past eight months on CW Network. Silverman, who has an uncanny knack of delivering international hits, believes Jane the Virgin can have the same kind of success as Ugly Betty (which he brought to ABC in 2006). With the current show, Silverman’s role is to sell the international format rights to the US version, while the completed series is being sold by CBS Studios International. It’s also worth noting that the original telenovela is being sold on the international by RCTV.
It’s too early to tell if Silverman is right to put Jane in a similar category to Betty, but there are positive signs for the show. For a start, the ratings across the first run of 22 episodes (1-1.3 million) were pretty good (especially among the 18-49 demo). There’s also the fact that CW has recommissioned the show, which means it is getting up to the kind of volume international broadcasters like. E4 in the UK has already started airing the series and an unnamed German broadcaster is close to picking up the format.
On top of all this, the show – created for the US by Jennie Snyder Urman – has received a healthy level of critical praise, both from the US and UK. To top it all, lead actress Gina Rodriguez recently won a Golden Globe for her portrayal of Jane, something that won’t do the show’s sales prospects any harm.
Still in the US, the spring shakeout at US networks is now virtually complete, with shows renewed, cancelled or picked up from pilot. One casualty is Fox’s The Following (starring Kevin Bacon), which is being shut down at the end of its current run (May 18). The Kevin Williamson-created series started strongly in series one with ratings in the 6-10 million range. But by the middle of season three the show was muddling along with 3-3.5 million viewers.
Williamson’s direct involvement in the series diminished some time ago, presumably so he could devote his energy to Stalker, a 20-part programme he created for CBS. Unfortunately, that show has also been cancelled after just one season, with ratings dipping to around the six million mark at the end. Williamson (whose earlier credits include Dawson’s Creek, the Scream movies and I Know What You Did Last Summer) still has a success in the shape of The Vampire Diaries on CW, but it will be interesting to see what he will now turn his hand to if he decides he has spare capacity.