Elizabeth Guider hears from studio execs, producers and programming chiefs about managing talent, budgets, production values and audience expectations.
The golden age of TV series is shifting into an anything-goes era, as viewers’ appetite for new and often exotic flavors appears insatiable—and content providers dish up ever more content to satisfy it.
As preparations for the MIPCOM market in Cannes heat up, program distributors are readying an ever more robust portfolio of titles for potential buyers or financial backers.
In the U.S., the number of series in production is on track to exceed 520 in 2019, according to John Landgraf, the chairman of FX Networks and FX Productions, who has made a point of keeping tabs on the proliferation of content. Like every other player in the biz, his cable channel is “cranking up the creative engines,” to provide more fodder to feed the beast, as it were.
Speaking at the TCA confab in August, Landgraf emphasized that even within the enlarged Disney fold in which his company now operates, the primary goal is to maintain FX’s “curatorial filter,” which is generally regarded as edgy and fearless.
Indeed, that’s the critical challenge facing producers as corporate brass demand more bang for their buck: how to ramp up the quantity of content while keeping a keen eye on quality control.
The story across Europe and beyond is similar: the demand for content is growing faster than the creative community can keep up with it.
And that demand is not just for any old thing.
“There’s never been such a competitive time in television,” says Hilary Salmon, the head of drama at BBC Studios London. “It’s a fight to secure top talent, actors and writers. The challenge is to be open to new and different ideas—and to keep making good shows.”
Streamers, both global tech titans like Netflix and Amazon and local territory-specific platforms, are goosing the biz, rewriting the rules in the process.
Within the next year, other on-demand contenders—including platforms from Apple, Disney, WarnerMedia and Comcast—will join the fray. Like their established rivals, they’ll be experimenting with new genres and gunning for talent. And they’ll be spending a lot of money to do so.
“Artists, and that includes actors, are always looking for good material, and with the explosion of programming across broadcast, cable and streaming, television is offering more of that right now,” explains Kevin Beggs, the chairman of Lionsgate Television Group. “Specifically,” he adds, “deep-dive character studies” are now a significant provenance of TV producers and one type of material that helps attract stars.
Georgia Brown, director of European originals at Amazon Studios, adds, “With more players than ever and more diversity of voices, it’s a glorious time in television. Actors are getting a chance to read scripts that resonate and take on innovative roles.” She points to the global success of the “very British” series Good Omens as indicative of the kind of shows her team is developing across the Continent.
At Endemol Shine Group, another global player, several out-of-the-box projects have enticed top talent and are racking up fans beyond their original borders (Germany’s Dark among them). Lars Blomgren, Endemol Shine’s head of scripted for EMEA, ticked off several territories where incubating creativity is paying off: Scandinavia, Spain and India.
“Beyond a script that speaks to them, actors need assurance that the producing entity has the infrastructure and the ability to execute,” Blomgren says.
Of the 50-odd projects he oversees at any one time, it’s usually the high-end ones with a unique story and voice that manage to garner traction globally. Right now, he has high hopes for an offbeat Norwegian series (for HBO Europe) called Beforeigners, focused on refugees from, surprisingly, the Stone Age, and Ibis Trilogy, a historical epic about the opium wars directed by Shekhar Kapur.
Another boon to the TV biz, especially Stateside, has been greenlights for shorter-order series. Because shorter series allow for flexible work schedules, they are luring countless movie stars—including Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe, Leonardo DiCaprio and Richard Gere—to sign up between their longer stints on films.
Regarding Gere, BBC Studios’ Salmon suggests that the actor was attracted to the pubcaster’s eight-part series MotherFatherSon because actors of his stature are eager for strong storylines that reflect the complicated world we live in, something movies nowadays do little of.
“Stars generally want a new challenge and to do good work,” Salmon tells World Screen. In Gere’s case, he was keen to see the scripts and meet the directors (James Kent and Charles Sturridge) before he committed.
As great a time as it is to be in the creative trenches, the bar keeps rising in terms of what it takes to hold an audience.
“You can’t just repeat yourself anymore in such a competitive landscape,” maintains Ran Tellem, the head of development at The Mediapro Studio. To attract top acting talent, Tellem elaborates, a company benefits from having “connections to” and “a history with” the star—and it further helps when the material on offer is “groundbreaking,” he says.
“Yes, we audition actors, but keep in mind, they audition us too,” Tellem quips.
As a major player in Europe, Mediapro is currently putting together two series that involve top-tier casting across borders. The drama The Paradise is a Spanish/Finnish co-pro and involved enticing stars from both of those territories, Tellem says, while an Antarctica-set thriller called The Head has drawn lead talent from several different countries, including Japan and Spain.
From another perspective, it’s evident that broadcasters, as well as streamers, are also “woke” to the idea that the formulaic will no longer fly.
“You can’t walk in and pitch just another medical, legal or cop show, even at a traditional linear broadcaster,” stresses one U.S. producer who used to do just that but recently has had to up his game. “Nowadays, the race is on to be out-of-the-box—heaven forbid [that you run] with the familiar or comfortable or predictable.”
The time-shifting This Is Us, wacky The Good Place and La La Land–inflected drama Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist are all indicative of just how much linear broadcasters—taking a cue from their freewheeling cable and streaming competitors—are amenable to unusual creative approaches.
Also, unlike in the film business (which is riddled with sequel-itis), television right now is going through an “anti-franchise” stage. Creators are striving to come up with concepts and plots never before seen or explored rather than rehashes of what’s already on-screen.
If these occasionally over-the-top efforts don’t catch fire, executives, especially those at the SVOD services, tend to extinguish the flame and light up something else in their stead. The trick is to keep the biz from devolving into what one executive called “Kleenex culture,” in which the majority of content is seen once and then discarded.
Caroline Torrance, the head of scripted at Banijay Rights, puts it this way: “New platforms Stateside and elsewhere are mashing up genres. There is room now for everything on the small screen.”
Producers are toying with lengths (even within the same series), with multiple time and tone shifts, with contrasting styles, with unexpected acting talent and with bodacious storylines. Think Fleabag or Pose, Euphoria or Maniac, all of which would have been unorderable a decade ago.
One project that fits that bill is The Watch, a topsy-turvy fantasy police procedural from BBC Studios for BBC America. Based on the cult Discworld book series by Terry Pratchett, the multi-parter is relying on a highly diverse cast, which Salmon believes should reflect the series’ young-skewing target audience.
Over at Amazon’s European outpost, Brown stresses that her aim is always to come up with a show that works in its particular country of origin—like, say, the Spanish series El Cid—and travels well. Brown notes how receptive audiences have become to material outside their own local culture.
All this doesn’t mean, however, that everything on the small screen is a standout.
“We’re all scrambling to deliver something undeniable in quality,” notes Steve Stark, the president of TV production and development at MGM. “That means, in our case, something of library-lasting, long-term value.”
At MGM, Stark is focused on both mining the studio’s vaults of existing IP and coming up with fresh material. What attracts A-list talent, he has found, are scripts that break through all the white noise—or a confirmed order at a network.
“Our bar is high for our own IP,” the MGM executive says, referencing the almost automatic audience ennui with regard to remakes. Putting together the key writers and actors to reimagine an existing asset takes time and effort.
By most accounts, the company’s TV version of the hit movie Fargo succeeded more than pundits predicted; ditto for the literary adaptation The Handmaid’s Tale, which, despite (and because of) a long search for the right writer to adapt Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel, went on to win the best drama Emmy, among other trophies. Stark is currently furthering two upcoming series based on existing IP: Ringworld for Amazon and El Gato Negro, which is still up for grabs.
There is considerable good news related to the challenge of casting.
Lionsgate’s Beggs points to “the greater range of performers” who are being tapped for key roles, attributing the openness in part to the impact of one of his company’s own hits, Orange Is the New Black. “No one has done more to change the casting paradigm than Jenji Kohan,” the creator of the drama set in a women’s prison, Beggs says.
The trick, Banijay’s Torrance goes on to say, is to take “more risks” and “work harder” to cut through the clutter. Under her company banner, she points to a pickup from Israel called Juda, which is a vampire piece that balances the supernatural with the comic, and which perfectly illustrates an embrace of contrasting genres.
Of course, this is not to say there aren’t other challenges ahead.
With the proliferation of content, the finite talent pool is being drained and funneled among many different entities. Every producer naturally sets out to make something special, but it’s arguably getting harder to amass top talent across all the needed competencies to guarantee a megahit like Game of Thrones or The Sopranos or The Walking Dead.
In the future, one media consultant suggests, only the most deep-pocketed entities—like, say, Amazon or Apple—are likely to be able to assemble all the A-listers of cast and crew necessary for ambitious projects like the former’s upcoming The Lord of the Rings adaptation.
No one would talk specifics, but most executives concur that to have a shot at a global hit, top dollar has to be spent on locking down top talent. Such sums are being allotted, as another source dryly put it, “at quite a clip.”
Stateside, eye-popping payouts to star writer-producers and actor-producers have been handed out around town, including multi-year, nine-figure deals for über-creators like Greg Berlanti and J.J. Abrams (at Warner Bros.), Game of Thrones creators David Benioff and D. B. Weiss (at Netflix) and This Is Us’s Dan Fogelman (at Disney’s 20th Century Fox Television). Other healthy sums have been showered on actor hyphenates to move their shingles from one studio home to another: Connie Britton to Amazon Studios, Bryan Cranston to Warner Bros. and Octavia Spencer to 20th Century Fox Television.
Of course, money in and of itself doesn’t guarantee success in such an unpredictable industry. Sometimes something weird, wacky or wonderfully relatable washes up—and those oddities do not always involve A-list talent in front of the camera.
From Torrance’s perspective, the most successful series start with good writing. A noir series called Wisting, she indicates, started as a bang-up script, and only later was Carrie-Anne Moss serendipitously available for a co-starring role. Banijay bases a lot of its decisions on what to proceed with on good source material, mostly novels, including several from Scandinavian authors.
Sometimes, too, a series benefits from not having household names in the cast.
Versailles, Torrance adds, is a perfect example in that it might have been distracting to have, say, a Bryan Cranston cavorting around as Louis XIV. “Iconic characters don’t necessarily need A-listers to portray them,” she explains. “We’d rather in some cases make stars out of relative unknowns.”
From another vantage point, Katie O’Connell Marsh, the CEO of Platform One Media, talks about the sophisticated and multilayered conversations that take place these days to entice top talent.
“As we sit across from artists, be they actors, directors or writers, the questions are: What is the compelling narrative that we can offer? How can our team build a value chain around that artist’s brand? We recognize that creatives are not moving in just one lane. We have to hash out together what we can do to give them a platform, as it were, help them build a plan around their goals and extend their experience.”
In little more than two years, Platform One, which was recently acquired by Boat Rocker Media, has inked first-look deals with Laura Dern’s company Jaywalker Pictures and Simon Mirren and David Wolstencroft’s Atlantic Nomad.
The flip side of these more complex arrangements with talent is that long-tail distribution—as in the 100-episode goal that underpinned series television in the U.S. for 50 years—has seen its financial results diminish (excepting a few juggernauts like Friends and The Office).
In the old days, the goal was to keep series going for at least five seasons so as to monetize them through syndication, both domestic and international; nowadays, series are often thought of as tools to stimulate or enhance subscriptions or even an outlet’s corporate brand. They don’t necessarily have to stay on the air for years on end to perform those tasks.
Lionsgate’s Beggs, however, cautions against overstatement, indicating that shows with multiple seasons, like The Walking Dead and Homeland, are still significant financial drivers for studios. “No one willingly cancels a show that’s working well financially. Additionally, when a series with incredible storytelling and a strong fan base is canceled, it’s still a priority for studios to find a new home for it, as we’ve done with Manhunt for Spectrum and with Nashville, which transitioned from ABC to CMT.”
Over at MGM, Stark stresses that renewals of series are key to long-term health at independent companies. He is currently working to secure a second season for the company’s small-screen version of Four Weddings and a Funeral, which launched this summer on Hulu.
Somewhat differently, Platform One’s O’Connell Marsh emphasizes the need to expand the ways that shows can garner attention and financial rewards.
“We have to think more strategically about other access points, merchandising possibilities and other ways to expand the experience of a given series,” she says. “For us in choosing to greenlight a project or not, the idea is [to present] a necessary narrative, one that breaks through the noise and resonates. It’s more than just selling; it’s about having something compelling to say.”
FLAVORS FROM AFAR
Another point several executives were quick to make was the extent to which audiences are now eager to savor foreign programming even in the U.S., where it had been notoriously difficult for international shows to find a following.
Thanks to streamers like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon, a few intrepid cablers and PBS, a much wider range of foreign-made material is attracting eyeballs. Think Fauda from Israel, Money Heist from Spain, Dark from Germany or Peaky Blinders from Britain.
In response to its own data on the subject, Netflix is boosting outlays for dubbing services worldwide and shifting some resources to increase original production or acquire locally made titles in a secondary tier of territories.
At a recent NATPE-sponsored conference in Los Angeles, Amy Reinhard, VP of content acquisitions at Netflix, indicated that the platform’s overseas teams are concentrating more efforts on Eastern Europe and the Middle East now that its production machines are chugging along smoothly in major Western European countries.
“Markets like Britain, Germany and France are fairly mature [for us], but we can make a dramatic impact with acquired titles in countries that have their own distinct tastes.” Regarding the market in India, Hollywood content gets “almost no traction,” Reinhard pointed out. Rather, local fare is what people want to see in that territory.
In any case, despite the justifiable euphoria in the biz for today’s cornucopia of content, there is a nagging worry in some quarters.
The reclaiming of program rights by the biggest players and the natural preference for their own shows to take precedence could eventually squeeze out smaller, independent voices and less vertically integrated suppliers.
No one World Screen queried wanted to go on the record about this issue because it’s early days for Hollywood streamers to get their arms around what they own and how much of it they’ll want to designate for their own direct-to-consumer platforms. And, in the meantime, indie executives don’t want to badmouth the behemoths as long as those major companies are open to commissioning shows from them as outside producers.
But there is a precedent for concern.
Twenty-five years ago when the so-called fin-syn rules were abolished Stateside, networks could suddenly own and distribute the shows they put on the air. It took a decade or so for the process to take hold, but eventually, the broadcast networks came to rely almost exclusively on content produced by their own in-house studios—and the independent production sector was duly decimated.
Much has changed since the early 1990s, but some things, like financial imperatives, haven’t. Stay tuned.