The demand for high-end drama is bolstering co-productions between U.S. networks and platforms and the rest of the world.
With all the talk in certain U.S. political circles of building walls and securing borders, the American TV production community offers a stark contrast to this philosophy of exclusion. The increased demand for high-end scripted programming, fueled in large part by SVOD platforms, has forced producers and programming executives in the U.S. to look overseas for ideas—many of which would have never been considered some four or five years ago.
British and European producers are only too happy to oblige U.S. SVODs, premium and basic-cable networks, even broadcast networks searching for product that will boost subscriber counts or increase ratings. In return, the non-Americans get access to the type of programming they can’t afford to produce on their own.
The openness to new ideas most often takes the form of co-productions, where American outlets have some control over the project.
“An American broadcaster won’t want to sign on at a co-production level unless it’s the right thing for them,” says Cathy Payne, the CEO of Endemol Shine International (ESI). “There are some broadcasters in America that do a lot more co-productions than others. Some do very little acquisition of finished product,” but even that is changing, for example, with HBO’s recent acquisition of Gunpowder, Payne says. “That was rare; they don’t do a lot of acquisitions. They are mostly always involved at an editorial level.”
“I’ve been doing this job for 25 years and we are at the most exciting point ever in terms of the U.S. really opening the window onto the rest of the world,” says Sarah Doole, the director of global drama at FremantleMedia. “The U.S. market is pretty self-sufficient. They’ve never needed shows from anywhere else; they make fantastic shows for their domestic market and export them. But in the last [few] years, there has been a real opening up, and I think that’s driven by talent and by stories that audiences in America are now ready to hear. The crucial thing there, which we always hoped would happen but we weren’t sure, was whether the U.S. audience would accept shows that weren’t in English.
“The breakthrough moment for us was Deutschland 83; we got SundanceTV on board,” continues Doole. “We had another breakthrough with HBO coming on board right from the very start—from the moment we acquired My Brilliant Friend, the Elena Ferrante novel. That’s all shot in Italian in Italy. For HBO to take on an Italian show and come on as a partner from day one I think is the flag of how much the market has changed.”
Alon Shtruzman, the CEO of Keshet International, sees two main factors that have contributed to what he calls a sea change in the American market. “First, we see a much bigger appetite and need for originals,” he notes. “Ten years ago, a few dozen new series a year was quite a lot for the American market. [In 2017], America made more than 400 scripted series—that’s a massive number—obviously driven by the growth of OTT. Amazon and Netflix [combined spent] around $10 billion in content and the majority goes to scripted. In addition, we see much more openness and acceptance of foreign formats. The U.S. market became such a big beast in terms of the number of shows every year that the only way to feed the beast is by also looking for great ideas and great IP in other countries.”
THE RIGHT STUFF
Not every British or European scripted project needs an American partner. The most-often-cited reason for crossing the pond in search of a partner is financial.
At ESI, “it’s usually for those shows that we would need to bring a partner on board because of their budget and expectation,” says Payne. “We wouldn’t be able to finance it ourselves out of the domestic market because the story needs a partner, whether that’s from the U.S. or another country, or it lends itself to having two broadcasters on board from the beginning.” One such project is Troy: Fall of a City, a co-pro between BBC One and Netflix. ESI was also involved in the John Ridley limited series Guerrilla for Sky and Showtime.
“The U.S. is still by far the biggest market, and if you have an ambitious project that has a certain kind of budget attached to it, you have to look at the U.S.,” says Henrik Pabst, the president of Red Arrow Studios International. “We have not been able to finance a $5 million piece out of the rest of the world without the U.S.”
About a year ago, when all3media international decided to increase its focus on high-end, premium drama, the U.S. became an important part of its strategy. “That meant increasing the level of investment that we are prepared to put into shows and building relationships with American or global co-producing partners,” says Louise Pedersen, the company’s CEO. Examples of recent co-productions in the U.S. include Liar with SundanceTV, The Miniaturist with Masterpiece, White Dragon with Amazon, Rellik with Cinemax, Kiri with Hulu and Collateral with Netflix. “It’s an interesting range of partners as well,” continues Pedersen, who stresses the importance of matching up a show with the right partner. “What Masterpiece is looking for is very different from what SundanceTV is looking for.”
Honoring the creative vision of the project is key to finding suitable partners. “When we are putting our partners together, sometimes it’s good to have the U.S. up front, but it’s not always necessary,” says Rola Bauer, the managing director of STUDIOCANAL TV. “Sometimes the narratives focus on the European DNA. We want to make sure we don’t have too many voices around the table. It’s all about what’s the best way to protect the series. It is vital to protect it so that there is a real desire with all the partners to respect and maintain the original vision they brought to the project. All our collaborations are essentially driven by the story.”
Pedersen agrees that the story drives a project. “Of course, the thing that gets everybody excited by a project is the creative vision—who the director is going to be, some idea about the cast, where will the storyline go and what is the story that everyone wants to tell. Those conversations tend to happen before we get into the financials and they might happen with more than one interested partner. Then you do need to move to the financial conversations fairly quickly to make sure the show is financed and can start production.”
DOLLARS & SENSE
FremantleMedia’s Doole is in agreement on the importance of a financial contribution from a co-pro partner, but she is looking for more. “It is about the budget but it’s also about finding a partner that creatively is going to understand the vision and the ambition, and very importantly, is going to be there for the long term. About 70 percent of the shows we develop are designed as returnable series. We want a partner who is going to be with us for the long haul, not just pay the most money and then dump the show after season one. That’s very important when we look for a partner.”
British and European producers and distributors are supplying product to American platforms in a variety of ways. “An original production is Black Mirror—where a network is fully commissioning you and you’re working for them,” explains ESI’s Payne. “A co-production is where you are sharing editorial and key creative decisions and viewing cuts. An enhanced presale is when people have come on board very early and they may have consultation on lead actors, rather than approval, but meaningful consultation and limited editorial but they’ve come on board very early and bought off script.”
There are as many novel ideas gracing the small screen as there are formulas being created to finance them. While for many years the traditional way was to find an anchor broadcaster who would cover most of the budget and the distributor would deficit the rest, today, many co-produced projects are requiring a piecemeal financing approach, more akin to the indie film model.
“We’ve probably got 12 or 15 different co-productions we’re working on at varying stages of development or financing, and each one is a different model,” says FremantleMedia’s Doole. “And that is the indie film model. You have to piece the financing together to suit the project. It’s all about editorial control, what language it’s in, at what stage of development your partner comes on board.”
Pedersen at all3media prefers the traditional financing scheme. “For us, the ideal model is finding the anchor broadcaster and then bringing in perhaps one main co-producer, or if the budget is small and you don’t need one, just bring in a distribution advance. There are certainly cases where we’re looking at new partners. We’ve announced a partnership with Liberty Global and Virgin Media for their Virgin platform and their international feeds. That is an anchor broadcaster who is new to the market. That is going to involve piecing together the financing in a different way. But we still love the anchor broadcaster model because it’s really helpful when you know someone is being the editorial lead in terms of developing the show and in terms of making key decisions as the show goes into production.”
STUDIOCANAL’s Bauer recently oversaw a co-production with two anchor broadcasters, one on each side of the Atlantic. Take Two, a procedural from the creators of Castle, got a straight-to-series order from ABC in the U.S. and will be co-produced by TANDEM Productions and ABC Studios. It will air on ABC and on RTL/VOX in Germany and France Télévisions in France. “This is a new paradigm for network co-productions,” says Bauer.
Red Arrow’s Pabst notes that often when non-American producers or distributors work with Americans, they may not be able to retain the rights they want. “Rights retention is a problem you need to take into account [when taking a project to the U.S.],” he says. “And if you do that and you are a content group that strategically should produce a show and own the show, then the opportunities are very limited in the U.S.”
But when a distributor can retain rights, the advantage of producing in English is that the finished product can be sold around the world.
“We’ve done two co-productions in the last two years,” says Keshet International’s Shtruzman. “We’ve done The A Word, a collaboration with BBC and SundanceTV, and Loaded, between AMC and Channel 4, and we also distributed them to many countries. The storytelling in both series has resonated with other languages and other cultures.”
Before approaching potential U.S. co-production partners, a non-U.S. producer/distributor really has to know how to package a project correctly and pitch it.
“It’s not like I can go everywhere with my show,” says Pabst. “I can go everywhere with my show if the package is outstanding, [if it has] the right director, the right talent, the right on-screen talent and an underlying IP that brings a built-in audience that is vetted and therefore makes the difference, as Bosch did with Amazon. Michael Connelly brought in an audience to Amazon because of his huge fan base.”
“We’re very strict with our producers about at what point they go pitch in America,” adds FremantleMedia’s Doole. “We’ve learned very quickly that you have to go in with a big-name writer or a very established writer to lead [the show’s] vision. You’ve also got to have the vision of a brilliant director. The normal model in the U.K. and Europe, which is a non-writing producer, doesn’t really hold much court in America. They want to get to the heart of the talent, and you’ve got to be able to take the talent into the room to pitch to the American broadcasters or cablers or SVODs.”
Doole notes it’s a very different pitching process compared to how it’s done in Europe or the U.K. “We’re learning as we go and we’re trying to be really ordered about it and make sure that when we do take something to America it’s at that perfect moment where we’ve got all the stars aligned. You can’t keep going back every five minutes with a changed version of it. You’ve got to go in and pitch to HBO or Netflix or SundanceTV with the very best project at the very best moment in its development.”
While the term co-production has gotten a bad rap—conjuring images of the Europudding of yesteryear—it is still used broadly to refer to jointly financed or jointly produced projects. Some execs, like STUDIOCANAL’s Bauer (a pioneer of transatlantic productions), would like to see “co-production” obliterated from industry jargon and replaced with “international production.” Whatever the term, as ESI’s Payne notes, “there are so many ways that people look at co-production; I think it’s just if you co-produce you have to share. That’s the main thing. If you don’t want to share editorial ideas and decisions, you fully fund, otherwise if you are co-producing it’s important that you understand that you’ve got to share.”
“When we are doing a project like The Missing or Howards End we are aware that it has to not only work for us, but it has to work for our partners,” says Carmi Zlotnik, the president of programming at Starz, a frequent collaborator on co-pros out of the U.K. “It’s picking the projects where that won’t be a conflict, that’s the goal, because if everyone is aligned philosophically, making creative decisions is relatively easy. It’s when they are not aligned philosophically that you get friction.”
Red Arrow’s Pabst points out that if he is bringing a project to the U.S., he wants to protect the writer’s vision. However, “American broadcasters and content platforms know their audience really well,” he says. “Following these people to a certain degree is something we do because they can help us shape a brand. They know their audience better than anybody else and that is something we value a lot when we speak with them.”
TAKING THE LEAD
Even when sharing editorial decisions, one party in a co-production often takes a lead role. “From my point of view I would say that one party always does have to have the lead,” says FremantleMedia’s Doole. “But that is usually the party that is closest to the writer, so in effect, it’s the writer having the lead. It all starts with the word and the writer’s script and his or her vision. If you’re in a really respectful co-production, you give your partners certain levels of approval and input. I genuinely believe that makes projects better. In the global world we live in, we want input from our partners because we’re making shows now that cross cultural boundaries that might not even be shot in English.”
Doole cites the example of the Elena Ferrante project with HBO. “We always knew we were going to shoot My Brilliant Friend in Italian,” she explains. “We knew we needed and wanted a big U.S. partner and we brought on board an American writer named Jennifer Schuur. She hasn’t written or rewritten any scripts, but the scripts go back and forth with the Italian writer and Jennifer just adds notes to shape it to be more agreeable to an American audience in terms of the pacing, structure and tone. She’s almost like a creative executive producer. That allows us to give HBO real confidence that the American sensibilities will be respected and that hopefully, it will break through with an American audience. For them, it was a real risk that it was in Italian, but I think it’s a rather unique way to collaborate and give input.”
One of the big differences between the American way of producing and the British and European way is the figure of the showrunner.
“The showrunner is the lens through which we see a project, the person who was motivated to tell the story, who we trust in telling the story and has managerial and fiscal responsibility,” says Starz’s Zlotnik. “There’s a transition going on in our industry as more people who are based in Europe want to achieve the status of showrunner, but there is not a lot of training for them. Emma Frost, who worked for us on The White Princess and is developing with us now, went through the showrunner trainer program sponsored by the WGA. She’s one of the next wave of full-fledged showrunners who come from the U.K., have learned and understand the U.S. system and are able to go back and forth.”
There appears to be no decrease in demand for premium scripted programming. That demand will continue to bring non-U.S. and U.S. producers and distributors together, and in the process, interested parties are developing a shorthand when it comes to co-producing.
“The world is becoming more global,” says all3media’s Pedersen. “U.S. co-producers are [in the U.K.] a lot; we are over there a lot. Everyone is talking the whole time, which has made things much easier and a bit more straightforward. We have learned what they want, and they’ve learned what producers here need. It’s much easier than it used to be.”
Pictured: Red Arrow Studios International’s Cleverman.