Sonar’s David Ellender Talks Drama Trends, Collaboration Models


David Ellender, the president of global distribution and co-productions at Sonar Entertainment, shares with World Screen his views on drama trends and successful collaboration models.

WS: How did Sonar Entertainment come to be involved in Das Boot?
ELLENDER: Bavaria Fiction owns the underlying rights to the book and the original 1981 Wolfgang Petersen movie. Sky Deutschland came on board, and then we followed very shortly after. This was at the very early stage—it was more an idea rather than a fleshed-out project. We didn’t want to do a remake or sequel. We wanted to be true to the material by creating another U-boat mission, and then taking it into a new world with different characters. We decided that 50 percent of it should be a French resistance story told on the land. We took the production into Europe; not just in France and Germany but also the Czech Republic and Malta. When having the scripts written, we mixed German, U.K. and French writers. That gave the project a very balanced view. It was a challenge in many ways. The scripts were written in their mother tongues and then translated into English. A lot of the production meetings were trilingual. There were a lot of early-morning calls for us, and a number of transatlantic visits to the various sets in Europe.

Das Boot is a big co-production project for us. Over the summer we made a lot of good presales to Europe, the U.S., Latin America and parts of the Asia Pacific, getting the first-window deals done. Because the world is fragmented, there’s a huge amount of value in second- and third-window deals. MIPCOM is an ideal opportunity to engage all of those diverse players.

WS: As you move forward with your co-pro strategy, are you looking to employ a similar model as the one for Das Boot?
ELLENDER: All of our dramas have been constructed differently. We focus on having a broad development portfolio—something for every type of platform, from streamers to premium to basic cable to free-to-air channels. We have a significant U.S. focus, but we’re also looking for co-production or straight-to-distribution projects in the international market. First and foremost, we’re looking for great stories and great storytellers, and then from that we’ll determine, what does the structure of this project look like? We don’t necessarily bring a cookie-cutter approach to what we’re going to do because the partners will vary on each project. If it sits on a streamer, it will look very different from a project on basic cable. So we have to be pragmatic and to some degree also a little bit opportunistic. The landscape is continually changing with new platforms and new opportunities with new partners.

WS: What lessons have you learned from the Das Boot experience about successfully managing co-pro relationships?
ELLENDER: Two to three partners is probably ideal, certainly on a project like Das Boot. When we came together, we all had the same vision. The very first meeting was very much about, where do we see this going? What shouldn’t it be and why? Having that dialogue, we were all then facing in the right direction. We’re all cognizant of some of the failings of cross-border co-productions historically. We wanted to make sure that we created something that would work for the Sky platforms in Europe and universally without losing the key elements that we wanted to capture in the drama. We paired Johannes W. Betz, a great German showrunner and writer, with Tony Saint, a U.K. writer, and then worked with them on putting a writers’ room together with other nationalities. All of these elements were key, and communication—constantly communicating, regardless of physical distance from Munich, where the writers’ room was based. This [model] is very much the future. Budget sizes are increasing. These projects need more than one or two partners. That’s just the reality if you’re making high-end, expensive drama.

WS: What considerations do you take into account when devising the distribution strategy for each project?
ELLENDER: Once you have your initial anchor platform you start to think, where will this naturally sit internationally? Will it be with a premium pay or streaming platform? Are there elements of this that will work for a free-to-air? At the outset, one has to weigh up the landscape as you see it that day—which can, of course, be 15 to 18 months before it will be screened. So you’re trying to anticipate what the marketplace will look like. And the market moves very quickly with new platforms coming into existence or existing traditional platforms changing their branding or their approach to the market. And then you’ve got to look at what the secondary window will be. So if it’s a streaming platform or premium pay, then how do the other windows fit in? The competition is very intense in certain markets. And then you look at the other rights you have and the growing plethora of outlets. The free-to-air platforms are growing their digital offerings. They’re not just looking at their linear platform; they’re looking at their digital platforms to acquire content for. And then you may have basic-cable channels following that. So we look at this rich mosaic and then try to piece together where we think we get the best outcome.

WS: What trends do you see affecting your drama business in the coming year?
ELLENDER: For us in high-end quality drama, it’s been about brands, franchises or talent-driven pieces. We had The Shannara Chronicles with Jon Favreau, an acclaimed Hollywood film producer and director; Mr. Mercedes with David E. Kelley; Taboo with Scott Free and Tom Hardy; and The Son for AMC with Pierce Brosnan. We have an output deal with Robert Downey Jr.’s Team Downey. We have The Hunt from Jordan Peele, the Oscar-winning writer and director of Get Out. We’ve developed a series on Watergate with George Clooney’s Smokehouse Pictures. We’ve announced a first-look deal with acclaimed Hollywood producer Michael Shamberg.

It’s about talent, brands and franchises—something that already has a tailwind or a fan base. Mr. Mercedes is based on the Stephen King trilogy. The 1981 Das Boot movie still plays around the world. The project we have with Netflix—Watergate from Smokehouse—you know what you’re going to get. That’s not to say there isn’t room for original pieces like The Hunt, a 1970s Nazi hunter story set in New York. It’s one of Jordan Peele’s first big television pieces after Get Out. His unique view of the world is something that can be marketed by Amazon. David E. Kelley is one of those few showrunners that does have a name around the world, in our industry and for consumers as well. Those elements are increasingly important. You don’t want to be in the middle ground of a “good drama,” because then you’re just one of 30, 40, 50 good dramas, and it’s a crapshoot as to whether your show will be bought. We’re trying to find a marketing or consumer hook along with great material. It’s about elevating the material to make sure that you can package it in such a way that you can make it head and shoulders above other things in the marketplace.

WS: Are you looking to enter into talent or output deals with producers outside of the U.S.?
ELLENDER: We are talking to a number of companies outside of the U.S. about first-look deals, one in Asia and one in Europe. We also have individual projects, including one in Australia that’s been greenlit by ABC.