The complex characters in the new Warner Bros. slate of shows, including Prodigal Son, struck a chord with the buyers who took part in the studio’s screenings yesterday.
Character counts. Specifically, the characters in the five new pilots Warner Bros. unveiled for foreign buyers on its lot Monday morning.
Unlike at so many past editions of the Screenings, the Warner Bros. series on offer as a whole focused less on in-your-face action and slick, cinematic visuals and more on the characters at the center of the story.
Whether the buyers were referring to Michael Sheen and Tom Payne in Prodigal Son (FOX) or Ruby Rose in Batwoman (The CW) or Billy Gardell and newcomer Folake Olowofoyeku in Bob Hearts Abishola (CBS), the general consensus was that, judging from what they saw, “empathetic, complex” characters would be driving the different plots, and, all things being equal, pulling in viewers, to these upcoming series.
“I’d say in particular that Prodigal Son was for us quite strong, the main characters being very well-drawn,” Thomas Lasarzik, the recently promoted head executive VP of group content acquisitions and sales at ProSiebenSat.1 Television Deutschland, told World Screen. “The plot is dark, with echoes of Silence of the Lambs, but there is also a compelling family dynamic here, lots of secrets, and also some surprising humor.”
Lasarzik and his team have an ongoing volume deal with Warner Bros. as well as with Fox (now under the Disney Global Content Sales and Distribution umbrella) and an ongoing film slate deal with Disney.
Prodigal Son is from the Greg Berlanti stable and toplines Sheen as a surgeon turned serial killer, now incarcerated, while his son, played by Payne, has grown up to become a forensic psychologist. Needless to say, their relationship is strained.
Several other buyers, from territories as far-flung as Central America, the Middle East, the Far East and Western Europe, also gave that drama high marks.
“The relationships in Prodigal Son look intriguing, with many layers, and all the acting is quite good,” added Adda Molina, the general manager of R-Media in Honduras.
“It would likely work on a platform like ours,” suggested Takahiro Kawazu, manager of the movie and entertainment department of the WOWOW service in Japan.
Other buyers, including several Europeans, gave general thumbs-up to the handful of newcomer series from Warner Bros., noting that their home networks and time slots in the States were “pretty much ideal” for the subject matter and style of each show.
In addition to Prodigal Son, which will air at 9 p.m. Mondays on FOX, the others in contention include the ensemble legal drama All Rise, for Mondays at 9 p.m. on CBS, and Chuck Lorre’s latest sitcom, Bob Hearts Abishola, also on CBS on Mondays at 8:30 p.m., as well as the Riverdale spinoff Katy Keene and another Berlanti effort, Batwoman, both for the young-skewing CW.
“That Warner Bros. has fewer pilots picked up by the broadcast networks is not a bad thing, it turns out,” said another European buyer, who declined to be quoted. “We’re all tending to be more selective rather than buy in bulk now, and it appears that a lot of time was spent [by the studio] in the casting and in bringing texture to the storylines.” He did hazard that other than Prodigal Son, the four shows on offer all boast strong female leads and supporting characters, calling the casting “racially diverse and refreshing in tone.”
None of the dozen buyers World Screen spoke to Monday gave thumbs down to any of these offerings, except in a couple of cases where Latin American buyers indicated the lesbian theme in Batwoman might be “a hard sell” on certain linear broadcasters.
“Don’t get me wrong—the lead actress [Ruby Rose] is very compelling, as is her friend Sophie [played by Meagan Tandy] and it looks like a lot of fun, but it may be—how do you say?—a bridge too far,” opined a buyer from South America.
On the other hand, suggested Luiz Bannitz, the head of content for the digital service Encripta in Brazil, “That show, as well as the others Warner Bros. showed us this morning, could all work on our platform. Our viewers are generally younger, perhaps more open, and all of these shows had appealing characters.”
In his remarks to buyers from the podium, Jeffrey Schlesinger, the president of Warner Bros. Worldwide Distribution, made a point of mentioning “the seismic tremors sweeping across the business” and addressing the impact on his own company.
To wit, under AT&T ownership, WarnerMedia is now divided into four operational units. Warner Bros. distribution will henceforth manage “an expanded portfolio,” he explained, that includes, in addition to Warner Bros. product, content from Cartoon Network, TCM, OtterMedia as well as assets from HBO and Turner.
“From now on, we’ll be working as one group speaking with one voice,” Schlesinger told the 300 acquisitions executives in attendance, adding that this year the company’s slate is highly targeted.
“You can’t appeal to everyone but you have to resonate globally.” (In fact, it is license fees from foreign program buyers which substantially help offset the deficits on the shows the various studios, including Warner Bros., produce for the U.S. networks.)
For his part, Peter Roth, the president and chief content officer of Warner Bros TV, riffed on Schlesinger’s remarks, suggesting that viewers over the last couple of decades have become more “demanding,” and they now want more “convenience, choice and control.”
Nonetheless, Roth went on to say, “the importance of quality execution” has never been greater, ticking off both the record number of Warner Bros. renewals still on the network skeds and “the amazing auspices” of the upcoming series on offer. Prodigal Son, he predicted, would become, like House, one of the great procedurals on FOX. Katy Keene, toplining Lucy Hale from Freeform’s Pretty Little Liars, is, he hazarded, a charming cross between The Devil Wears Prada and Fame. Bob Hearts Abishola, he extolled as having humor, heart and cultural relevance. All Rise, he opined, would be for courtroom drama what ER was for medical drama. Batwoman, he noted, is a character study inside a procedural and features the first openly gay superhero on TV.
Whatever the pitch from producers, however, buyers tend to play their cards close to the chest and not over-enthuse. Moreover, what they say off-the-cuff about what they like, and think their viewers will like, does not always translate into what they buy, but they do provide an indication of where the heat at the LA Screenings is forming.
Before the all-day session on the Warner Bros. lot, a number of buyers spent the weekend at one or another of the other suppliers’ viewing sessions.
HBO, for example, on Sunday screened an episode of the Damon Lindelof drama Watchmen and the teen dramedy Euphoria, which stars the actress Zendaya, while MGM on Saturday screened the series version of Four Weddings and a Funeral, which will air Stateside on Hulu, and Lionsgate on Sunday took the wraps off Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist, which will air midseason on NBC.
“I found Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist to be a crowd-pleaser—touching and uplifting,” Mercedes Gamero, a top buyer from Spain’s Atresmedia, told World Screen. A couple of other buyers told World Screen that Four Weddings was “pleasantly surprising and freshly conceived,” given that reversioning such a popular movie is not an easy task.
The Screenings continue through Thursday as swathes of buyers traipse to a different studio each day to take in what each has on offer.
Their biggest concern coming into the Screenings is to what extent, if any, the big Hollywood studio suppliers will hold back certain rights so as to prime their own soon-to-be-launched streaming services.
At Warner Bros. that concern did not seem to spoil the upbeat, business-as-usual mood on Monday.
Another top WarnerMedia executive, Kevin Reilly, did shed some light Monday afternoon on that company’s streaming plans in a short video address to the overseas buyers. The newly promoted content chief for WarnerMedia’s streaming service told the assembled that HBO product would form “the core” of the new SVOD service but that it would also feature product from the Warner library (think everything from Looney Tunes to Friends) as well as, presumably more current, fare from Warner Bros., The CW, the DC Universe, New Line and some “premium original content.”
Reilly went on to say more details, including the name of the new service, would become public in a few weeks and that the beta launch, domestically, would be in the fourth quarter of this year. He did not address if or when there would be launches of the SVOD service outside of the U.S.
Visit WorldScreen.com’s Fall Season Grid for all the details on the new and returning shows on the U.S. broadcast networks, and a listing of pickups by studio.