When it comes to drama, crime does indeed pay. Viewers can’t seem to get enough of the genre, whether watching highly binge-worthy, serialized thrillers where they have to wait until the end of the series for the whodunit question to be answered, or enclosed, story-of-the-week procedurals, in which resolution is granted in under 60 minutes.
“The crime genre reflects the rest of TV,” says Stuart Baxter, the president of Entertainment One (eOne) Television International. “It’s growing and attracting more talent, and its creative breadth is becoming ever broader. Accessible procedurals and crimes of the week still work; haunting, edgy, dark and intense serialized also work; and now we see the emergence of hybrids like Stranger Things and our own The Making of the Mob and True Horror.”
Hybrids do seem to be the hot trend in crime drama as producers and writers look for innovative ways to put a new spin on a well-worn genre.
“There is definitely a trend appearing of blurring genres, where you take a crime drama and mash it with supernatural or give it a flavor of family or comedy,” reports Rebecca Dundon, the director of scripted acquisitions at FremantleMedia International (FMI). “Something that makes it different and distinct. That is where the shows will break out. Anything we’ve seen before isn’t going to stand apart.”
At MIPCOM, FMI will be showcasing Hard Sun, the latest from Luther creator Neil Cross and the first big commission for FremantleMedia’s revived Euston Films label. “Hard Sun is a prime example of genre-plus,” Dundon says of the BBC One and Hulu co-production. “It’s a crime thriller at heart, but it’s set against a backdrop of a pre-apocalyptic state of Armageddon. That makes it new, exciting and distinctive in the market. It’s got everything you want from a crime thriller, but it’s got so much more [as the characters] face the end of the world.”
As another example, Dundon cites Paul Abbott’s No Offence, which delivers a darkly comedic spin on the police procedural. The show has been renewed for a third season on Channel 4 and has sold into Australia, Denmark, France and Sub-Saharan Africa, among other markets.
Red Arrow International has also fared well with comedy-inflected crime dramas. Amelie von Kienlin, senior VP of scripted acquisitions and co-productions at the company, refers to the international success of The Last Cop and Einstein, which deliver a “lighter tonality” that audiences have been responding to.
Meanwhile, Robert Franke, the VP for drama at ZDF Enterprises (ZDFE), is hearing more requests for “series that incorporate some fantasy, supernatural or science-fiction elements, without being pure sci-fi.”
Distributors are also seeing high demand for crime dramas that are based on existing, well-known IP. Red Arrow, for example, has been rolling out Bosch, adapted from Michael Connelly’s best-selling book franchise. A fourth season is in the works for Amazon. “Even in this very crowded space, if you have something that is based on a famous book property then it still very much works with the audience, especially in the traditional markets like Germany and Italy,” von Kienlin says.
Sonar Entertainment is banking on the global fame of Stephen King to help drive sales on Mr. Mercedes, which is based on the first novel in the author’s Bill Hodges trilogy. Commissioned by AT&T Audience Network in the U.S., the series was penned by David E. Kelley and directed by Jack Bender, with a cast that includes Brendan Gleeson, Mary-Louise Parker and Harry Treadaway.
“This is a bit of a departure from what people normally think of as Stephen King material,” says Jenna Santoianni, the executive VP of television series at Sonar Entertainment. “A lot of people think that Stephen King material is horror or going to be scary. This is a really interesting character study of a man who was a very proud cop and had one case that he couldn’t solve that stuck with him. And just as he’s settling into retirement, his biggest nemesis [played by Harry Treadaway] starts to reach out to him. It’s an equally matched game of cat and mouse. You see both sides and you’re equally invested in both of their stories.”
BBC Worldwide is also showcasing a book-based project at MIPCOM: the highly anticipated McMafia. The BBC One commission, which has AMC on board as a co-production partner, is inspired by Misha Glenny’s nonfiction work McMafia: A Journey Through the Global Criminal Underworld. For Liam Keelan, the director of scripted content at BBC Worldwide, the auspices of the show are expected to be major selling points.
“It’s one of, if not the biggest piece of drama that we’re dealing with at the moment, in terms of its size and interest in the market,” Keelan says. “It’s got such global reference points and feels very topical, and the talent, both on-screen and off, is phenomenal. It’s a very well respected source book that has been adapted by Hossein Amini and James Watkins. The story itself crosses so many boundaries—London, Tel Aviv, Moscow. It’s a fictionalized version of something that is actually happening. It will have those elements of creating a bit of debate, getting talked about by the audiences and the print media, and you’ve also got James Norton fronting the show. It will definitely gain attention. Broadcasters and platforms are going to want to put it front and center.”
Beyond the talent on McMafia, Keelan says the show is compelling because it is a “different take on a subject area within crime. That’s something we’re always looking for. It has to feel genuinely different. You want something where you know the audience is going to be watching it and thinking, I can relate to that. It’s those touchpoints that you’re looking for. You’re not ever looking for things that feel a bit like something else. Audiences tend to sniff that out a mile away. Genuine innovation in the genre is difficult because, as you know, crime is such a popular, well-trodden genre. I think it’s really hard to come up with those new, innovative shows. But the demand is definitely still here.”
For Greg Phillips, the president of distribution at Kew Media Group, the uniqueness of a crime drama comes down to “the writing, the scenario, the plot, the characters, the casting and the twists. It’s a good story well told. It’s the way the story is told, the boldness, the ability or the willingness to take a few risks. The audience probably needs to be shaken now and again. I don’t mean in terms of violence or a visceral response or melodrama for its own sake, I just mean a fresher angle, leaving the audience with an episode where they say, I didn’t think about that, I wasn’t expecting that, I didn’t realize it was about this.”
Kew’s distribution division—formerly Content Media—has fared well with BBC One’s critically acclaimed Line of Duty from Jed Mercurio and World Productions. The show has completed four seasons and been renewed for a fifth and sixth, and ticks all of those boxes for Phillips.
“It hits a note for people because, like much of life, it’s a voyage of discovery and it’s unpredictable. The twists and turns are what make life fascinating, especially in a world that not many of us suffer with but we all know about, which is trying to keep the peace and making sure the good guys really are the good guys.”
“You have to look for zeitgeist,” says Sonar’s Santoianni on how to stand out in the crowded marketplace. “That could be a big book, from a well-known literary visionary and world builder like Stephen King, like it is in the case of Mr. Mercedes. It could be the magnitude of the crime. There are a lot of true-crime stories in the marketplace and there’s a lot of fascination with why things happened, or how things were handled. In crime, you want the audience to be asking why. They are looking for answers.”
Baxter at eOne has found that an unusual backdrop can serve as a unique selling point for a show. “One of our newer crime series, Mary Kills People’s subject matter is assisted suicide, which is provocative and hasn’t ever been discussed before in a television show to this extent.”
Franke says that ZDFE.drama’s new launches Tabula Rasa, Before We Die, Maltese and Tempel “really strike a chord with today’s audiences. These moving, high-end dramas offer plenty of suspense, plots woven from intertwined storylines and, in some cases, supernatural elements. New forms of storytelling, unfamiliar settings and fresh faces are what make these crime dramas shine.”
Scandi crime shows, among them the megahit The Killing, have been strong sellers for ZDFE.drama. Indeed, the distributor was a pioneer in the international sales of Nordic noir shows and is now just one of many rights-holders taking on Scandinavia’s finest thrillers. For example, Red Arrow did well with Case and will be launching Stella Blómkvist, another series from the Icelandic producer Sagafilm, at MIPCOM. “It’s a very sexy Scandi noir take on crime with a strong female lawyer who investigates crime in Iceland,” von Kienlin says.
FMI represents a slate of shows from FremantleMedia-owned Miso Film, including Modus, which will have a second season available at MIPCOM. “Modus is a really atmospheric crime thriller that is based on best-selling novels by Anne Holt,” says Dundon. “It’s got the brooding Scandi noir that we see all the time, but it has so many different elements. And for series two they’ve taken that even further. Kim Cattrall, Greg Wise and Billy Campbell are attached to star. That means that part of the narrative is going to be in English. It’s no longer just a Scandi noir drama; it’s something else. Having that high-profile international talent on screen is very exciting, especially for a Swedish drama series. It shows how the drama landscape is changing.”
Like so much of the drama landscape today, Scandi crime tends to be highly serialized. “A lot of writers want to write serialized crime dramas, and you can understand why,” says BBC Worldwide’s Keelan.
“We hear commissioners talking a lot about, Where is the next story of the week?” Keelan continues. “We’re hearing them say, We want serialized crime drama, but we want the episodic as well. At the moment we’re not seeing much evidence of those being commissioned, but I think it will happen. It just has to feel genuinely different and innovative.”
FMI’s Dundon expresses a similar opinion, noting, “There’s a huge appetite for procedurals, and the problem we have is that broadcasters aren’t really commissioning them at the moment. I think ITV said last year they are looking for a crime procedural. They feel that producers aren’t pitching those shows to them because they want to make bigger, serialized drama series. We’re seeing that across Europe particularly, but also in Latin America and Asia. Broadcasters are looking for that crime-of-the-week procedural drama that they can really get audiences to tune in to.”
“The market seeks both serialized and procedural series,” reports eOne’s Baxter. “For example, Private Eyes demonstrates an ongoing demand for procedurals, as it travels very well internationally, is easily accessible and tends to be lean-back television in that you can tune in anytime. Whereas shows like Cardinal and ICE, which are much edgier, serialized fare, work really well on pay-TV and OTT platforms and are often binge-watched.”
Sonar’s Santoianni backs up this view on the divide between the crime-drama needs of free and pay/OTT broadcasters, especially in the U.S. “It would be great if more American platforms felt like closed-ended procedurals worked for them, because there would obviously be more synergy between the global and U.S. markets if that were the case.”
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Santoianni also sees a strong demand for returnable shows, even as broadcasters continue to seek out limited series with high-profile casts that can be plugged as major events. “If your series does really well, you want to know that you can bring it back and keep delivering on it. I think you’re seeing [too many anthology series] where the easy answer is, you can replicate the magic of season one with a new cast and a new setting. That’s become the easy answer on how to keep things going. That’s not to say that doesn’t fit some shows. Obviously, Fargo has done incredibly well with that format. American Horror Story has done incredibly well with that format. But it doesn’t fit every show. For us, if it’s going to be an event and it’s going to be limited, it has to be an event and it has to be limited.”
“With events, you can draw the audience in and with returnable, you keep them,” quips Red Arrow’s von Kienlin.
Baxter at eOne observes that returnable series “typically only require big marketing spend for the first season, to attract that built-in, loyal fan base who will follow the show into new seasons.” Limited series, meanwhile, “require bigger budgets in order to promote them as a standalone series or event,” he says. “The linear broadcasters tend to promote shows rather than the service or platform, and as a result they want returnable series because they invest a lot in media spend to build audiences for individual shows, creating appointment-to-view experiences. The OTT platforms prefer binge-viewing and are typically more biased to the closed-ended limited series that will attract new viewers to subscribe to their service.”
“Channels still want limited events that they can schedule as highlights, but we have just as many clients looking for returnable series that they can bring back for a loyal audience in certain slots,” says Franke at ZDFE.drama. “As we see it, the attitude of platforms to returnable and limited series is highly flexible.”
Broadcasters and platforms are also flexible when it comes to the settings for crime dramas. “We are seeing a growing number of very small, local series with global appeal despite their strong sense of place,” Franke continues. “These provide interesting additions to expand our range.”
Ultimately, crime has no borders. “Whether a show is set in a far-flung place abroad or, like Mr. Mercedes, in Ohio, crime is one of those few genres where it doesn’t matter where [the series is] located,” Santoianni says. “It really comes down to the actual crime and the uncovering of what happened and looking for answers.”
Pictured: Red Arrow International’s Einstein.