Sophie Turner Laing, CEO of the Endemol Shine Group, and writer, producer and director Greg Berlanti sat down with Anna Carugati, World Screen‘s group editorial director, to discuss today’s television business, including securing talent, finding ideas, opportunities and challenges presented by streaming services, diversity and the #MeToo movement.
The conversation took place as part of the daylong events leading up to the International Emmy Awards Gala, where Turner Laing was presented the Directorate Award and Berlanti the Founders Award.
WS: There is worldwide demand for drama. How is this demand changing your business?
TURNER LAING: What is interesting for us is that there are new customers and the OTTs have created a very different marketplace for scripted. What people are figuring out is how that sits alongside the terrestrial broadcasters. There is a lot of noise in the marketplace about the traditional linear broadcasters being beaten out of the competition because prices are high. And because of that, the scarcity of talent is very, very acute. So, you may have a marvelous idea but the lack of writers, directors, etc.—that’s where the pitch point is and I’m not sure there is an answer [to the problem].
BERLANTI: Crew, cast, directors, everyone across the board, as well as the scripts, have to be better because you are always going into a room trying to convince someone to do your show, as opposed to the other 15 scripts that will arrive at their office or their house tomorrow. So, we focus on how we can make the material even better. Overall, the quality of television—[considering] the amount of time we are spending in preproduction, production and postproduction—is much more what people are used to at the feature-film level in terms of the number of hours we are spending now on anything from a visual effect or the score or on something in postproduction, to the number of days we shoot some of the episodes and the number of scenes we have. [This increased demand for drama is] affecting us in that way. The other great thing is that there are so many places [offering drama]. If you have the right story, there is an outlet for it, but you have to know on the other end that it’s going to hit the audience. We all, as audience members, have been told about a great show and thought, Yeah, I have to add that to the list of things I have to watch. As a producer, you are also biding your time once you are on the air, hoping there is a different way people are finding and discovering shows and that you have enough of a passionate fan base to keep the show going.
TURNER LAING: The challenge outside the U.S. is that the writers’ room is still really not in existence. And the Europeans have much more time to make drama than the frenetic [process in the U.S.] of getting a pilot order, then a pickup and start delivering in September. European writers would throw their hands up in horror if they’d have to move that fast! It does mean that you have this logjam waiting for the great writers to come on and most of them are booked up for four or five years.
WS: Sophie, how are your production entities casting a net to find new talent?
TURNER LAING: That is a great advantage of operating in so many countries. We don’t do scripted everywhere, but in places like Israel or India there are lots of new talent coming through and the trick is to find a way to umbrella them in a well-established team, so they learn on the job. But as soon as they are any good, they get nicked by Hollywood!
WS: Not all of your shows have the traditional network run of 22 episodes. Are you moving toward shorter runs?
BERLANTI: Yes, definitely. When we would watch European shows or hear about them, we would be jealous of those shorter seasons. Now that’s happening a lot of times. We’re also doing fewer pilots and going more and more straight to series on a lot of shows. So, the first five or six episodes are considered the pilot because of the amount you are learning of what’s working or not working—what story elements are working, what actors are working, what chemistry is not working. The challenge is that you’ve written episode 10 or 12 and you’re just watching episode 3 or 4 and you know the snowball effect that is going to have on everything. You either choose to scramble or not; hopefully you do to try to augment the show based on what you are learning and seeing.
TURNER LAING: What is most scary is the number of shows that don’t make it past the first season. Years ago, you could know that probably the first season was going to be a bit bumpy; it wasn’t going to be perfect, but if there was a strong characterization or relationship, you knew, most times out of ten, they would take a roll on it again. The hardest thing is the percentage of cancellations, and you wonder where this is going to lead.
BERLANTI: Another thing that has happened is you think a show is dead and then six months later something happens and people discover it and binge it. You are also seeing shows that were very successful and had been canceled are now being resuscitated. It has so much to do with how people are discovering shows.
TURNER LAING: There is a great feeling of nostalgia that is transferring across to nonscripted as well. Fear Factor came back on MTV. Operación Triunfo, which is an enormous success in Spain, was off the air for [several] years. There is a feeling of being able to relaunch a show in a slightly different way but have this familiarity with the audience because marketing is the hardest thing. With all that competition out there, how do you get the eyeballs to that particular show?
WS: Sophie, when your teams spot a good idea from one of your companies, what considerations go into deciding that it could work for more than one audience?
TURNER LAING: I’m a great believer that good ideas can come from anywhere. You have a new generation—I certainly see with my own kids who are in their late 20s—who are happily watching shows with subtitles, which you would never, ever have seen 10 or 15 years ago. Dark, a German series we do for Netflix, is a great example. And the only numbers we ever get out of Netflix, which is like trying to get teeth out of a hen, is that 90 percent of Dark’s viewing was outside Germany, which leads me to believe that there is no barrier to shows traveling. When we gather our guys up on a regular basis through the year—and I just recently put Lars Blomgren, who is a producer of The Bridge, as a kind of godfather of our non-English-language scripted companies—it’s really to make sure an idea is not a replica of something else that has already been and gone. You are always striving for that genuinely innovative storyline. Because most stories we’ve seen over the years.
WS: How does diversity in front of and behind the camera benefit the whole process, from finding ideas to bringing new talent and voices?
BERLANTI: I was a product of it. I was writing shows about being gay and that got me my first job and my second job. I’ve always been of a mindset that diversity allows people to be more specific with their storytelling. [The call for diversity] also happened at the same time as the audience [had been inundated] with the same kind of stories and storytelling. Viewers are rewarding storytelling that is different, new and fresh, and looks and feels like they do. There is an economic reward too, but also in the writers’ room and on the sound stages and with the directors and the crews behind the camera. People can be cynical about the business, but the truth is what I’ve seen most is people wanting to give new people and new voices a chance. It’s very rewarding to do that and it’s nice that the industry is embracing that in a larger way because when you make a TV show and you send it out to the world, you don’t always feel the effects of what you are doing. But when you change a person’s life or give them the opportunity to direct for the first time or write a script for the first time or be an art director for the first time—or whatever—you get to feel the results of the change you’ve made in someone’s life.
WS: With so many companies in so many countries, how is diversity helping the company as a whole?
TURNER LAING: Obviously, diversity means different things in different countries. It’s important to us if we are going to deliver local shows to the local entities that they reflect the local environment they are in because I think it’s very wrong of us to force an Anglo-Saxon attitude on different countries around the world. However, that doesn’t stop you from having very good conversations about how to be more inclusive. A lot of progress has been made on camera. Where I find the challenges, and especially when I was at Sky, is behind the camera. The U.K., for example, has a very large BAME [black, Asian and minority ethnic] population, but it’s very hard to get people of color on crews. Equally, you go to India and there are very few women on those crews. You’ve got to do it step by step, but I think sharing a spotlight of what good looks like and what inclusion means is what our jobs are for.
WS: Have streaming services opened up creative possibilities? Have they changed the ways stories can be told?
BERLANTI: Regarding streaming versus broadcast, streaming is already changing how you tell the story narratively because you don’t have act breaks. And it’s true, Netflix is a mystery when you work with them, but they’ll tell you what’s important, and the end of episode two might be more important for them, whereas every act break can be important on a broadcast network show because you are fighting to keep people interested. So it affects how the stories are told. And when you are planning out a season for a streaming service, it’s almost more novelistic. We think about shows we know are going to be streamed more like chapters in a single story, versus a broadcast show where you are eventizing things and trying to find ways to make things feel bigger. One isn’t always artistically better or worse, but they are different.
TURNER LAING: The interesting thing we have with Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror is that there isn’t a set running time for the episodes. So, Charlie gets the freedom to write that particular story and it can be short or long. HBO used to do that years and years ago, which always used to drive us nuts when we were buying because then we had to fit [episodes of varying lengths] into a schedule! But, in fact, that creative freedom of allowing the writer to tell the story at the right length is very rewarding and freeing for them. We’re waiting to see the next drop of Black Mirror because there are a lot of surprises for everybody!
WS: Distribution-wise, have streaming services opened up another outlet for your product and another way of financing, or is it a double-edged sword because of how many rights you give away?
TURNER LAING: Like everything, it’s all a negotiation. It depends on how strong the idea is. Often, they are immensely brilliant co-production partners that are not necessarily involved creatively, depending on what rights they are taking. Lots get talked about them demanding exclusivity and, of course, you’re going to start at that place; whether they end up in that space is a different thing.
WS: It’s been a little over a year since the beginning of the #MeToo movement. What is being done to make workplaces safe—both in preventing harassment and inappropriate behavior and in making sure victims are heard?
BERLANTI: Everyone is a lot more aware of it and we are putting a lot more systems in place to make sure that everyone at every level of production feels heard and safe. It’s about a commitment so that as information comes in, you find all sorts of ways to make the workplace better, whether it’s safer or even more creative. [We have to make sure] that people know they are taken seriously. We have a much more open atmosphere now, where everyone feels safer and heard, than we did a year ago.
TURNER LAING: Respect is very important. I do worry that we end up with systems when actually it’s common sense that you should treat people with respect, which unfortunately doesn’t always happen on every single occasion. We try to use best practices and we have challenges because of different countries and cultures around the world and what respect means and where the barriers are. I want people to enjoy coming to work and do their best stuff, and therefore you need to make sure that it’s a welcoming and safe environment. And, as I’m much quoted, I have a “no arseholes” policy! That continues.
WS: Greg, what have you found to be the best way to generate openness and a creative atmosphere in writers’ rooms?
BERLANTI: That has always been my favorite place to be. There are writers in the business who love being on set. There are writers who love being in a room writing and not talking to people. But I love the communal aspect of television writing where you are bringing your best ideas in. It’s a lot of, “Yes, and…” if someone has an interesting or great idea. The more you swat everything away, the more people are going to become timid about making suggestions. And it’s non-hierarchical—ideas and creativity can come from anywhere. If you are putting together a group of writers who are coming into the room with different life experiences, ideas and forms of creativity, you’re going to get a sometimes volatile, sometimes combustible, interesting and incredibly exciting experience for everyone. It’s about being a conductor to that artistic experience. I’ve always found that running a writers’ room is very similar to directing, where you are inviting people to bring all their creativity and keeping the atmosphere as creative as possible so you can get your work done. You want it to be a place where people are so excited to get to and share their ideas.
WS: Sophie, the idea a few years ago was that unscripted shows belong on linear and scripted on streaming services. Is that still the case or is that changing?
TURNER LAING: No, it’s changing very fast. We have two of the biggest unscripted super brands in the world: MasterChef, which has just hit its 60th country with Panama coming on board, and Big Brother is still going strong, particularly in Spain and Italy, where this year they had huge ratings. There’s a lot of life left in those big beasts. What people realize but don’t talk about is how much effort it takes to keep those shows fresh, given that Big Brother is 20 years old and MasterChef isn’t far behind. And because they are adapted to each country, there are little local customs and traditions woven into the production. But we are seeing the streamers come big time for non-scripted, which is fantastic news for us because they want to shoot on a scale that is way beyond linear. That plays to our strengths because we can deliver them multiple language versions if they want to go in that direction.
WS: Greg, do I remember correctly that you had a bit of a baptism by fire when you were on Dawson’s Creek?
BERLANTI: I did. I was on Dawson’s Creek and just sat in an office and didn’t talk much the first year. At the end of the year, I had written 12 scripts and everyone had either left or got fired. The next year I came back and they had put a number of showrunners above me and then they got fired. They turned to me and said, Do you want to run the show? And I said no! The ratings weren’t doing very well. And they said there wasn’t a question mark at the end of that sentence! So I learned on the job.
WS: Are there lessons you learned back then that you still refer to today?
BERLANTI: Oh, everything. You’re always learning about what kind of leader you are versus what you hear, such as showrunners who write all the scripts themselves. I learned pretty quickly how much I rely on everyone on my team to do everything with me and how much I rely on the writers. I can break stories quickly, but I need people who can execute those stories very quickly.
WS: Sophie, it’s fair to say you’ve seen the business from every possible angle. Have there been Aha! moments that have served you as you have moved on?
TURNER LAING: I’ve been very lucky. I have loved every single job I have ever done and the reason I have moved is not because I had worked out a career path and needed to go somewhere next. But I felt like I’d had that discussion enough times that I just wanted a new challenge. It’s been enormous fun, starting with selling, then buying and now back around again, so I’ve been around the wheel more than once or twice!
The Aha! moments [have been that] there are definitely things you screw up along the way, but you have to learn from those mistakes and try not to replicate them. And learn from working with people; try to grab the best bits out of people so that when you have your own teams, you can make life and working with them a great experience. There is that adage of making people leave the room even more excited and fulfilled than when they entered the room—that’s a really important thing. But if I ever get tempted to merge companies again, please shoot me!
WS: Greg, any Aha! moments for you?
BERLANTI: I feel I always have them. The great thing about television is that there is still so much about it that I don’t know and I’m still learning. It’s changed so much. When we started, we would get a box of fan mail at Dawson’s Creek once every two months. Now we are getting feedback on the shows the first minute into an episode, so the connectivity between the audience and us is different now. I was at one time the youngest person in the room and now very often I’m the oldest person in a lot of the writers’ rooms!
WS: Do you read reviews?
BERLANTI: I found that TV reviews are like the old out-of-town Broadway reviews. The great TV critics, which I feel there are fewer and fewer of, aren’t just attacking the show to attack it, they are actually trying to help you. And they are hopefully giving feedback that you can learn from and [use to] make the show better. I think all of our shows have gotten better over time, so I look forward to that aspect of it. Usually a sentence or two into the review, you can tell if it’s nasty so that they get clicks and that is less helpful. But that has been a helpful process for me.
WS: Sophie, what have been the challenges and what have you learned from pulling together corporate cultures? There are some big mergers on the horizon—what have you learned about this?
TURNER LAING: The thing is not to get bedazzled by what the companies look like on the outside. Ultimately, it’s about what happens on the inside and where people’s passions are. We’re very lucky to be in a business, [as we discovered when] merging all those entities, where creativity connected everybody. Each company looked slightly different on the outside, depending on who their owner was: Lis Murdoch on one side and the Dutch team on the other. Once you ignored the layer on the outside, at their heart they were very much the same. And ultimately, our job is to be enablers. We’re there to get people’s stories told, to help them create the best show they possibly can. We’re there to remove the barriers; we’re there to snowplow through the middle, so you get these wonderful shows coming from all around the world. And my advice to anyone doing it is, do it fast. There are endless consultancies that you can have coming in, but do it fast because the one terrible thing is letting people live in this hiatus of, are they in or are they out? And that is terrible for creativity.