Joanna Stephens explores how distributors are finding success in the tricky business of scripted format adaptations.
One theory behind the ongoing boom in scripted formats is that there aren’t enough good stories to go around. Great new stories are few and far between, and great new writers are even scarcer. So it’s much quicker, easier, safer and cheaper to take somebody else’s great story and make it your own.
Nicola Söderlund, the managing partner of Stockholm-based Eccho Rights, puts it neatly: “The demand for scripted is huge at the moment, but there’s a real shortage of good stories. The result is a growing appetite for scripted formats, particularly in the U.K. and the U.S. The Americans are completely open to new ideas—and they don’t care where they come from.”
For Eccho Rights, the hunt for good tales to tell—or, more accurately, good tales to retell—has taken it as far afield as Korea, Turkey and India. “Finding new and fresh ideas in unlikely places has become our forte,” Söderlund adds. He cites CJ E&M’s Tears of Heaven, which was originally a daytime drama for Korea’s MBN. Eccho Rights then licensed the format to Turkish producer Süreç Film, which transformed it into Cennet for ATV. My Father Is Strange followed a similar trajectory; it first aired on Korea’s KBS, was licensed by Turkey’s Most Production and remade as Life of Secrets for Star TV.
“There’s a very strong trade between Korea and Turkey at the moment,” Söderlund says, observing that the two cultures’ drama traditions share specific characteristics, notably a penchant for romance and high emotion.
In the run-up to MIPTV, Eccho Rights closed a deal with Korea’s JTBC to represent the format rights to Secret Affair. This is the first time that the Korean cable network has worked with an international distributor to promote a scripted format, and Söderlund has high hopes for the award-winning drama. He also predicts more deals for The End, the Ay Yapim series that spawned Globomedia’s El Accidente for Spain’s Telecinco. The script was piloted in the U.S. as Runner on ABC, reversioned into Flight HS13 for NPO3 in the Netherlands, is gearing up for a launch in Russia on Channel One and has been optioned in Germany.
Söderlund makes the point that, while the various localizations of The End are very different from the Turkish original, all iterations respect the overriding story arc. “You have to be pragmatic,” he says. “We say a scripted format is like a Christmas tree. You can decorate a tree as you wish, but you must keep the trunk and branches intact, or the whole thing collapses. A format is the same. You can adapt it to reflect different cultures, but don’t touch the mechanics of the storyline. You’ve bought a great story that has worked in one territory and, with a few adjustments, it will work in yours.”
LET IT GO
This view resonates with Keren Shahar, Keshet International’s COO and president of distribution, who says the most significant challenge when adapting any drama is “staying true to the original writer’s vision, while allowing local writers to find their own voice.” Shahar’s advice to any writer seeing “their baby” reimagined for another territory is to let go mentally. “We are transparent from the start and let our writers know they may well see their original idea change shape. This is inevitable because often the story has to be adapted to suit the cultural expectations of a particular audience. We search each territory for the best writer and the most sympathetic creative team for the job.”
An example is The A Word, which originated in Israel as Yellow Peppers, created by Keren Margalit. The drama, which tackles the subject of autism and its effect on family life, was commissioned by the U.K.’s BBC One, where it was co-produced by Keshet UK, Tiger Aspect and Fifty Fathoms Productions. Acclaimed British screenwriter Peter Bowker was entrusted with the adaptation—a particularly sensitive task since the drama draws on Margalit’s own family story. The end result was a resounding success for the pubcaster, averaging 5.5 million viewers. And the critics liked it as much as the British public, praising “Peter Bowker’s new drama” for its bravery, humor and emotional nuance.
Looking ahead, Shahar sees a return to lighter, more optimistic drama. “I’d even say some territories want out-and-out escapism,” she says. Keshet’s response is The Baker and the Beauty, which has started to travel as a format following buoyant ready-made sales. The rom-com has already been adapted in the Netherlands and Greece and is in development in Russia.
At BBC Studios, one of its most sought-after scripted formats is Doctor Foster. The format has been licensed to Russia with more deals in the pipeline, says Sumi Connock, creative director of formats.
Part of Doctor Foster’s appeal, Connock believes, is that it taps into the trend for powerful female leads after years of men’s stories dominating prime-time drama. “We’re seeing a demand for strong women from everywhere, from the U.S. and Europe to India, Korea and China,” Connock says.
Also gathering in popularity are youth-skewing dramas, notably sci-fi fantasy and fast-paced thrillers that can deliver on both digital and linear. Successes in this sphere include crime drama Luther, licensed to Russia and South Korea; Orphan Black, recently remade in Japan; dark comedy-drama End of the F***ing World; and immersive online murder mystery The Last Hours of Laura K, now being reversioned by Brazil’s Rede Globo.
For Connock, the advantages of buying a BBC Studios scripted format go well beyond the comfort of acquiring a concept that has been proven elsewhere. “Drama is incredibly expensive, so it helps to know a series has been successful in its original territory. But our dramas have also been through the filter of the BBC. When you buy from us, you not only cut down on development costs and go into production more quickly, but you also get the full backing of the BBC, with its experience and pedigree, and the advantage of working with some of the best writers in the world.”
It is assumed that comedy is the most challenging genre to export, on the principle that the world may cry at the same things, but it doesn’t necessarily find the same things funny. Connock isn’t convinced. While acknowledging that old-school comedy can be a tough sell, she says scripted humor is gaining in popularly, particularly with broadcasters targeting younger viewers who, thanks to SVOD and YouTube, are much more humor-agnostic than previous generations.
More proof that comedy can travel comes in the form of David Brent, the cringe-inducing anti-hero of Ricky Gervais’s The Office. The mockumentary now has nine local adaptations under its belt, including NBC’s incarnation, which is rumored to be coming back for a tenth season. In February, it was announced that India has now also acquired the format. “I think The Office is so transferrable because every office in every city in every country has a David Brent. We all know one,” Connock observes.
Arabelle Pouliot-Di Crescenzo takes a similar line. The managing director of KABO International, the distribution arm of French production group KABO Family Group, points out that two of the most successful scripted formats, Love Bugs and Camera Café, are pure comedy. But for global audiences to get the joke, she says, the humor must be grounded in universal experiences. She references KABO Family’s Our Crazy Family, heading into its seventh season on M6 in France and still pulling in more than 3 million viewers. The format has been sold to Canada’s Canal Vie and Greece’s StarTV, with a deal now in the works in Spain.
“When buyers watch Our Crazy Family for the first time, they invariably say, ‘That’s us! That’s my family!’ I think you need that sort of instant, visceral connection for comedy to cross borders,” Pouliot-Di Crescenzo says. She also notes that Our Crazy Family mines customs and emotions for laughs, not politics or beliefs. “It focuses on quirky traditions and inter-generational relationships, but in a lighthearted, affectionate way. It’s observational, not judgmental.”
Both Our Crazy Family and Cops on the Block—another successful M6 comedy format, which has been licensed into Ukraine—are constructed on KABO’s “Pick’n Mix” sitcom model, under which individual comedy skits can be assembled to create a show of any length. This structure also facilitates adaptation, in that local producers can cherry-pick the scenes that will work for their audiences and ignore the ones that won’t. “For the most part, our partners stick to our scripts, because that’s their investment,” Pouliot-Di Crescenzo says. “But sometimes a skit will get thrown out for cultural reasons—for example, if it’s about putting grandparents in a nursing home in a country where that’s not common practice.”
Another appealing aspect of KABO’s model is that it offers massive volume. Our Crazy Family alone now stands at 230 half-hours. This level of production is made possible by KABO’s 80 in-house comedy writers, who churn out around 70 hours of content a year.
In terms of KABO’s involvement in the localization process, Pouliot-Di Crescenzo says a great deal of attention is paid to ensuring that producers “really get the psychology and motivation” of the characters. KABO also helps with the casting, but steps back when it feels that “a solid foundation” has been achieved. “At that point, we’re happy to give our partners more freedom. But first, we need to know that they not only understand the show but love it as much as we do.”
At Twentieth Century Fox Television Distribution, Modern Family, Prison Break, How I Met Your Mother, Glee, Malcolm in the Middle and 24 are just some of the studio’s franchises to have generated local versions. One of the most successful, terrorism drama 24, was a breakout hit in India, fronted by Bollywood legend Anil Kapoor. Also performing well as a format is David Schulner’s 2007 paranormal pilot The Oaks, which has now spawned local remakes in the U.K., France and Mexico.
“We follow industry standards in terms of adaptation, production support and localizing scripts,” Dorothy Crompton, VP of format licensing, says of the level of assistance that the studio offers to its scripted partners. The storylines are only the start; constant communication and consultation are key to creating a local production “that doesn’t just feel like a carbon copy of the U.S. series with a foreign cast, language and setting.” The aim is to make the adaptation as appealing to its new local audience as possible, while retaining the tone and energy of the original. “For example, we might change the setting and time period, or add more cultural references,” Crompton says. “But we always insist that local formats maintain the integrity of the original IP.”
It’s not uncommon for broadcasters to license the original drama along with the format rights. However, the jury is out as to whether two versions of the same story can coexist in harmony, with some maintaining that one is likely to cannibalize the sales of the other. The more optimistic view is that tape helps build interest in a local version. Indeed, some territories prefer to test the water with the original drama before investing in a local production. “We’ve had it happen where the success of one of our U.S. series has generated great interest in creating a localized format,” Crompton says.
This has also been the experience for Diane Min, international sales manager for formats at Korea’s CJ E&M. “Asian broadcasters prefer to go with both versions because it makes them feel safe,” she says. “Then, if the original tape goes down well, it’s a safer bet that the format will also be a success.”
Min says that CJ E&M’s clients are getting “edgier and more sophisticated” regarding their scripted requirements, looking beyond the family and rom-com fare that has traditionally been K-drama’s heartland. An example of this trend is Signal, the ingenious plot of which revolves around a detective who solves cold cases via a two-way radio connecting the present to the past. Signal is set to be remade in Japan this year and has also been optioned in India. Another CJ E&M crime drama that is performing well is Stranger, originally produced by Dragon Studio for tvN, which has been licensed in Russia and optioned in the U.S.
In recent years, CJ E&M has adapted a slew of foreign dramas for its home market, including Criminal Minds and Entourage from the U.S. and Mother from Japan. That experience has taught the Korean media giant that “localization is crucial,” Min says. Echoing her international counterparts, she adds that respect for the original IP and close communication are pivotal to a successful outcome for all parties. “We provide a consultancy service with the original producers. For the Thai version of Oh My Ghost, our production team flew to Bangkok three times to give initial guidance.”
So how much leeway is too much leeway when adapting formats to suit local needs? Min says that CJ E&M always asks a drama’s original writers to review the first few scripts of an adaptation, “to make sure that the new version doesn’t lose the core of the original.”
Over in Japan, Arisa Mori, sales and licensing executive for international business development at Nippon TV, says it all comes down to flexibility, openness and “building trusted relationships.” She uses the Turkish adaptation of Mother, Nippon TV’s most successful scripted format to date, to illustrate her point. In the 2016 Turkish remake by MF Yapim and MEDYAPIM, the ending was changed, “but we could accept it because we felt the Turkish production team appreciated and respected the original script,” she says. “They truly understood the message that the original story wanted to deliver.” It was clearly a good call; the Turkish version, called Anne, has gone on to sell to more than 25 territories.
Mother is a very female-driven story: the protagonist is an elementary-school teacher who takes in one of her pupils to protect her from her abusive parents. Mother’s focus on women is part of a wider strategy that has seen Nippon TV allocate a Wednesday-night slot to dramas targeting female viewers. Mori elaborates: “We hear from our buyers that they want stories with an edge and uniqueness. There are a lot of medical, police and family dramas, but not many focusing on motherhood and the relationship between mother and child.” This is the niche that Nippon TV has made its own. Alongside serious dramas tackling women’s issues and concerns, Nippon TV’s Wednesday-night strand also features lighter fare, in which “heroines overcome problems in a bright, delightfully pleasurable way,” Mori says.
Another scripted format to have emerged from Nippon TV’s pursuit of compelling, female-skewing drama is Woman: My Life for My Children, produced by the creative team behind Mother. The drama was also reversioned by MF Yapim for Turkey, where it rolled out on FOX last October to “stellar ratings,” and is another story of unconditional motherly love.
Mori says the success of both titles in Turkey’s brutally competitive drama market has generated strong international interest in Nippon TV’s scripted slate, with several more sales due to be announced before MIPTV. That is clearly a welcome commercial result but, for Mori, it also has a deeper significance in a world that struggles with issues of diversity. Drama has proven itself to be effective in challenging attitudes, changing conversations and winning hearts and minds. Or, as Mori puts it, “We hope the messages that our dramas send out will be a small help to society around the world.”
Pictured: Pobeg, the Russian version of Fox’s Prison Break.