Christian Vesper, the executive VP and creative director for global drama at FremantleMedia, tells TV Drama about the projects he’s working on and offers up insights on the trends that are reshaping the international scripted business.
FremantleMedia has dramatically ramped up its scripted activities over the last few years. In 2016, in line with that strategy, the company tapped SundanceTV veteran Christian Vesper as its executive VP and creative director for global drama. In his role, Vesper is working with FremantleMedia’s group of companies on a diverse slate of high-end, distinctive titles, from period to contemporary, with a focus on delivering shows that can be rolled out around the world.
TV DRAMA: What are some of the new FremantleMedia titles that you’re most excited about?
VESPER: I’m really excited about My Brilliant Friend, which is the first in the Elena Ferrante Neapolitan Novels four-part book series. We’re doing it with Wildside [in Italy], and the commissioning networks are Rai and HBO. It looks gorgeous; the director, Saverio Costanzo, has done an amazing job, the writers have done an amazing job. It’s a mix of Italian writers and then we added an American writer as well. What’s really exciting about it is that it’s going to be the first Italian-language series on HBO. It speaks to the strength of the IP and team. We’re shooting it outside of Naples in a town called Caserta. They built this gorgeous reproduction of a square in Naples in the 1940s.
We’re premiering Picnic at Hanging Rock at Berlinale’s Drama Series Days. That’s something we’ve been working on for a couple of years. I’ve been working closely with FremantleMedia Australia since I got here almost two years ago. It stars Natalie Dormer and three extraordinary young actresses. It’s written by Beatrix Christian and directed by Larysa Kondracki. It’s a really vivid and exciting reimagination of the novel. It’s very different from the movie. It’s female-led—the cast, director, producer and writer. It’s a story that was written by Joan Lindsay and it is about young women, so it’s nice to have it be interpreted by women. That’s going onto BBC in the U.K., Amazon in the U.S. and Foxtel in Australia, and we’ve sold it to a number of big territories in Europe as well.
There’s The Miracle, which I’m incredibly excited about. It’s Sky Italia co-producing with ARTE and Kwaï in France. It’s based on an original story and written by and partly directed by Niccolò Ammaniti, one of the most important literary fiction writers in Italy right now. He’s created this brilliant, baroque, Italian political horror story around a hollow China-made statue of the Virgin Mary that won’t stop crying real blood. No one knows what’s causing it. It sucks in the Prime Minister, scientists, the Vatican and the Mob. It’s scary, thrilling and gorgeous, and no one has ever seen anything like it.
We also have a comedy coming up called Hang Ups, which is Stephen Mangan’s version of Web Therapy, the Lisa Kudrow show. It’s hilarious. Steve plays an online therapist and all the episodes are full of interesting actor friends from London. It’s not like a remake; it’s a really specifically English, Stephen Mangan take on the idea of Web Therapy. We’ve been working with Slam Films, his production company with Andrew Lincoln, for the last couple of years. This is their first commission, so it’s really exciting.
We are in the early stages of working on Michael Haneke’s first big drama series. He’s a major filmmaker and he’s done TV before but this is something really special. He is one of the great auteurs around. We continue to work with Paolo Sorrentino, and I can’t talk about it yet but we’re about to launch a few more projects with other filmmakers who have won Palme d’Ors.
TV DRAMA: Existing IP and recognizable names are major themes of your slate. Are those the sorts of things you need to have to cut through in the current drama marketplace?
VESPER: A good idea with a good writer attached always stands a good chance. The minute you start saying what everyone is looking for, it changes. The SVODs really want projects to come to them set up already with talent. With those projects, IP really helps, [as does] a well-known writer or director who people trust. And if you happen to have a big piece of casting talent, all the better. That makes it easier to set up. But also, the challenge we have as distributors and producers—we’re both—is how to push the conversation toward new ideas. Those are the things that really seem to ultimately pop. Look at something like Stranger Things, which came out of left field. It was unique. That’s what people want. It’s always the conversation on this side of the business: what is clearly going to work and where are the edges of what is new and interesting?
TV DRAMA: We keep hearing that there’s a premium on talent. How are you finding new voices?
VESPER: We spend a lot of time at the theater and watching movies from festivals and talking to reps we trust who are great at cultivating new talent. The tricky part is, how do you pair them with a producer or writer that the networks or SVODs trust? That’s a role we can play as producers who work across various production companies. We have a lot of producers within our group, like Wildside and Kate Harwood’s Euston Films, who have been around for a long time and are trusted by commissioners. It’s that alchemy of putting all the right pieces together.
TV DRAMA: How developed does a show need to be before you start pitching it?
VESPER: It depends on the project. When I was a commissioner, it was great when someone came in and knew the end of the season. But if someone like Steven Soderbergh comes in and has a nugget of an idea, you’re probably going to go for it. Then you look at a lot of the European directors we work with. We’ll go out with a novel-sized outline where they thought the whole season through—it’s just the way they develop—because they see it as a movie. That definitely helps.
TV DRAMA: How has the transition been for you to the production and distribution side of the business?
VESPER: It’s been great. Look, it’s tough on the broadcast side these days. There is a lot of competition. And you’re competing against companies with vast, seemingly unlimited resources. That’s the challenge there. Because of all the competition, a lot of audiences are being served and it makes room for a lot of new ideas. Being on the side that is supporting producers and writers is exciting. I like the entrepreneurial side of it. And FremantleMedia has given me a lot of encouragement to build the business.
TV DRAMA: I imagine it’s great fun to be working with producers from everywhere on new projects.
VESPER: Extremely. It’s a fun international job. It’s been great learning how each of our producers in their various territories do things. And also working to help them really do what they do best on a big stage. Our producers are all at the top of their game. It’s about how we can support them in becoming global, which is a fun opportunity.