From uplifting family sagas to twisty soaps and edgy thrillers, the global drama business is still booming—but finding ways to cut through the clutter is no easy feat.
The landscape of American players vying for the best scripted series from the global market has gotten a lot more competitive over the last 12 months. Joining stalwarts like PBS, cable TV outlets such as SundanceTV and streaming giants Netflix, Hulu and Amazon, many niche SVOD operators are competing for Americans’ discretionary income. Anglophiles have Acorn TV and the brand-new BritBox. Those with more exotic tastes can now access Walter Presents, which expanded to the U.S. this month after blazing a trail in the U.K. with its eclectic mix of foreign-language series. Lionsgate and Hemisphere Media Group are setting up a Spanish-language SVOD platform this year. Fans of Korean drama can head over to DramaFever, which received a cash injection from Warner Bros. in 2016, when the studio acquired the platform.
For those in the business of drama, the proliferation of windows is very good news. Whether they’re putting up cash up front as commissioners or co-producers, signing up for pre-buys or taking secondary windows, the growing number of linear and streaming operators that are looking to deliver drama to their viewers is helping distributors recoup their investments and turn a profit in what has become a very expensive business.
“Budgets are a concern,” says Liam Keelan, the director of scripted at BBC Worldwide. “They’ve skyrocketed. There’s no doubt about that.”
“For the general-entertainment broadcasters and SVOD platforms, it’s coming down to taking some pretty brave financial initiatives around intellectual property,” notes Patrick Vien, the executive managing director of international at A+E Networks, which has stepped up its scripted investments via its A+E Studios division.
“The scripted TV business has embraced a very old economic model, which is the model of film financing,” Vien continues. “Particularly in network TV, it used to be that you only had deficit financing—and the huge risk that went along with it—as an option. [Today] there’s room to deal with the international marketplace around a property that’s big enough, global enough, and probably of a particular genre of storytelling that would have natural appeal to big audiences. You can mitigate some of that risk.”
Katrina Neylon, the executive VP of sales and marketing at STUDIOCANAL, reports that the “market is no longer dominated by several key territories; rather, productions with co-pro/financing partners from across multiple territories are now more common. Budgets continue to be tight, but the rising demand for event drama is mirrored by the increasingly diverse ways in which this often big-budget drama can be funded and developed by myriad partners from the global market. These collaborations add a unique international perspective to each project, which also strengthens its ongoing appeal across a range of markets.”
Of course, finding the right fit for a property is essential. “If you don’t have that, then often the project can go awry,” Keelan says. “It’s something that we do agonize about. The advent of SVOD platforms has been a real boon to the industry, but also to broadcasters that then have the chance to partner on shows for which they might have had trouble finding partners in the past. Meanwhile, everybody has had to up their game.”
The importance of co-financing and co-producing has led to a greater role for distributors in putting drama projects together. “Our goal is to help producers find financing,” notes Malika Abdellaoui, the managing director of Newen Distribution, which represents titles from the TF1-owned Newen Group as well as third-party producers. “We can help producers at a very early stage by putting some money in development. It’s not to get a producer status, but to help producers have more financing and to be ready to propose the show to broadcasters. Also, a minimum guarantee or a distribution advance could be a way for the producer to have more financing at a very early stage. It’s also [important] for a distributor to understand the constraints of the producer and to provide a very good service. Marketing is a key service that a distributor can offer to the producer to highlight the series and help broadcasters to commit.”
Sky Vision has been broadening its network of alliances to add to its portfolio of Sky originals. It took on the Canadian series Travelers and has an output deal with Foxtel that includes Goalpost Pictures’ Fighting Season. Sky Vision also has an alliance in place with a Nordic producer. “We’re going out there with an effort to increase our relationships with third-party producers,” says Leona Connell, the director of sales at Sky Vision. “We want to grow our catalog. Drama is a genre that is doing well for us, and it makes sense for us to take on more. Sky Vision also has a number of development deals. We’ve got one with Merman, Clelia Mountford’s company, and one with Double Nickel. These relationships will help us bolster our drama slate and, at the same time, help these producers get more projects off the ground.”
Connell concedes that in a highly consolidated market, it is challenging to find indie producers to partner with who are not already affiliated with another distributor. “We’ve been able to keep in touch with key players thanks to the relationships our managing director, Jane Millichip, has with a number of producers. The Sky drama team and our own acquisitions team also have lots of relationships out there. As those producers go out and launch new companies, it is an opportunity to discuss arrangements with them. In addition, Sky has been investing in some production companies. We anticipate that the deal Sky has with Sugar Films, for example, will bring us some drama in due course.”
A+E Studios has also been busy lining up top-tier talent, including Jeremy Renner, who is exec producing Knightfall. Vien notes that A+E Studios has overall pod deals with Carlton Cuse and Michael Hirst, among others.
Finding new talent is the holy grail for all distributors of scale, even those like FremantleMedia that have a wide portfolio of in-network producers to tap into. “We’re trying to think innovatively,” says Sarah Doole, director of global drama at FremantleMedia, on fostering new writers. “We’re sponsoring the Greg Coote Scholarship in Australia, where we’re going to take an Australian writer and put them into one of our writing teams in Europe. We’ve sponsored some young theater writers’ projects, which is something I’m looking to do more of this year. Laurence Bowen, who runs Dancing Ledge, one of the indies we have a stake in, brings on board a young writer-in-residence every three months. They can work in development on his projects. [The first one in the program] has gone on to write a script for him. He has a second writer in now who was here meeting everybody, seeing the scale of FremantleMedia. We’ve got to find those new, interesting, fresh voices. Where is the next generation? I think we need that more than ever now. Nothing is being communicated in the same way it was six months ago, whether that’s a tweet or a newspaper article or the news. We’re in a very different world.”
The new world order also requires looking beyond the traditional markets and well-trodden paths for the best ideas. BBC Worldwide’s Keelan cites The Collection, commissioned by Amazon Prime in the U.K. and France Télévisions, as a project that came out of a slightly different route. “There isn’t a traditional U.K. linear platform for that show,” Keelan says. “There will never be one particular funding model or one way of doing things. Ultimately, it’s all about the IP and the strength of the idea. If it’s from a writer not based in the U.K. who still has an interesting story to tell, that’s fine; we’ll get it made. If it doesn’t have a traditional U.K. or U.S. platform, if we believe in the story then we’ll put the money behind it.”
The Collection is an English-language drama set in a major European city (Paris). While such shows continue to sell well, business in foreign-language drama is also booming. Among the region’s many lucrative markets is Spain, where an improving economy is helping to reinvigorate broadcasters’ drama investments. Perhaps the biggest development, however, has been pay-TV platform Movistar+’s new commitment to drama, observes Ivan Díaz, the head of the international division at Filmax International.
“The biggest problem that we had was not just the economy—it was the lack of a big pay-TV player who wanted to back good fiction,” says Díaz on the difficulty of the last few years for Spanish drama. “That has changed. Platforms are coming here to Spain, and Telefónica [Movistar’s parent company] is now very aggressive and aware that they need to produce their own shows.”
Díaz is bullish about the Spanish drama export sector. Following the success of The Red Band Society, Filmax is rolling out the thriller I Know Who You Are, which has a second season in the works. “We financed the development ourselves, which is unusual in the Spanish landscape. Because we believed in this team—the same one that made The Red Band Society—we financed our own development for a year to have the scripts we wanted.”
French drama is also seen as a growth area. “The quality of French drama is getting better and better,” says Abdellaoui at Newen, which has a stable of hits that includes the France 2 crime dramas Candice Renoir, sold in 30-plus markets, and Witnesses, season one of which was licensed to more than 70 markets. Also on the MIPTV lineup is Ouro, a Canal+ original series that premiered to big numbers for the platform. For Newen, the key to breaking through the international market with French drama is showcasing premium, high-quality “shows with powerful marketing opportunities, strong concepts and characters,” and high-end talent.
French drama is fairly new to FremantleMedia’s portfolio, following the group’s acquisition of Kwai and Fontaram. “When we looked around the world, the storytelling piece we were missing was France,” says Doole. “The market is very strong at the moment, and we’ve been successful with German dramas around the world, so we honed in and bought two companies that are talent-based.”
IN THE ZEITGEIST
Beyond viewers embracing foreign-language scripted, Doole also sees changes in the types of shows that audiences want, particularly in the wake of the rise in terrorist attacks, Brexit and America’s new Commander in Chief.
“The stories we are looking to tell in the next 18 months are very warm—they have love, redemption and hope,” Doole says. “I’m interested in stories that are firmly rooted in the family. Family becomes even more important in an uncertain, crazy, unstable world. More than anything, we’re looking for that lightened shade. You can have deep, dramatic moments, counterbalanced with some humor or color. It doesn’t have to be in the dialogue; it could be a different visual tone. The audience has probably reached saturation in terms of that girl-in-a-ditch type thriller. It’s an interesting time, and the writers who can write tonally, light and shade, will be the most successful in the next two or three years.”
FremantleMedia’s current slate, meanwhile, is headlined by shows that Doole believes tap into the angst and anxiety that many people are feeling today. American Gods, for example, is an adaptation of the Neil Gaiman novel that explores immigration and issues of faith. “I think audiences are willing to be pushed to the edge; in fact, I think they’re asking program-makers to do that. American Gods most certainly does it!” Doole also mentions a two-part German drama about Martin Luther, set to air in time for the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. “It raises some interesting questions about fanaticism, about religion at the edge,” Doole observes.
Whatever the story line, drama distributors must focus on delivering “channel-defining content,” says STUDIOCANAL’s Neylon. “With the proliferation of channels and platforms, it’s important to deliver drama that can be established as a strong brand, with engaging, relevant stories; well-developed characters and unexpected twists and turns that will draw viewers in and keep them watching as the series progresses.”
Neylon does see “real-world developments” as having an impact on story lines, which was the case for STUDIOCANAL’s Below the Surface, about a hostage crisis. However, she notes, “character-driven drama remains hugely popular—but the stories must be original, new and intriguing. Ride Upon the Storm, for example, explores the concept of faith, and how it affects people’s lives through the dynamics of a complex and volatile family relationship.”
Sky Vision’s Connell is excited by the diversity of her MIPTV slate, which includes big-budget shows for Sky Atlantic, backed by well-known talent both in front of and behind the camera. Britannia is a period piece written by Jez Butterworth and starring Kelly Reilly, David Morrissey and Zoë Wanamaker, that has Amazon on board as a co-pro partner. Riviera, with a cast that includes Julia Stiles, is “a thriller set against the bright background of the French Riviera,” Connell says. “It has the look and feel of a modern-day soap, with much more depth and a strong crime story running through it.
“What makes an impact are dramas that can return, and where buyers feel there’s a good opportunity to strongly market the series and make it their own in terms of being able to help create and mold the identity of their channel,” Connell continues. “That’s why the Sky Atlantic dramas have so much international appeal—they are very distinctive, they’ve got very big budgets, the production values are high, and the talent associated with them is of amazing quality.”
For BBC Worldwide’s Keelan, it all comes down to “mix and variety…. We’re always going to have different types of shows, not just in terms of the editorial but in terms of the length of the run. Audiences want that variety as well.”