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The State of Scripted

High volume, access to financing, availability of talent and crews, and viewer demand for unique storytelling are all influencing scripted programming today. 

Who doesn’t love a good story? People always have, from oral tales to printed books, from movies to television series.

In the last two decades, advances in technology have shaped how stories for the small screen are told and consumed. First, premium pay channels and VOD made it possible for writers to create and viewers to enjoy serialized fare. More recently, streaming platforms have begotten bingeing. Viewers no longer need to wait a week for a new episode; they can gobble up as many as they want in one sitting.

The proliferation of local and global streaming services, SVOD and increasingly AVOD, hungry for content, is fueling record-high demand for content. Several trends already impacting the business were accelerated by Covid-19. Now, producers and distributors are seeing myriad possibilities in the international market.

“Putting the pandemic and production delays aside, the big trend was the expansion of both the global streaming platforms and domestic VOD offerings, which have a strong appetite for content,” says Cathy Payne, the CEO of Banijay Rights. “There aren’t many VOD platforms outside of Disney+ possessing a library that allows them to sustain themselves. No doubt Netflix and Amazon lead the way in opening up many international markets to non-local scripted fare; however, we have all the other new players in the market. When we would take out a British drama in the U.S. only eight years ago, the two dominant targets were BBC America and WGBH, now, of course, rebranded as GBH. Whereas today this has expanded to include the likes of Netflix, Amazon, EPIX, Peacock, Paramount+, Showtime, HBO Max and STARZ, among others. There’s significant demand, and as all these services expand globally, it’s essential they have storytelling from the international market.”

Louise Pedersen, the CEO of All3Media International, concurs: “We feel pretty positive about the market at the moment. Yes, there are shows that are getting commissioned by global SVODs or studio SVODs where we, as a distributor, don’t have rights, but that’s good business for our partner production companies. Outside of that, there are lots of potential SVOD homes for our shows on the co-production side, both with local SVOD partners, such as Stan in Australia, who we worked with on Eden, and global SVOD partners who are prepared to do deals in specific territories. Then there are also long-standing and valued commercial or public-service free-to-air broadcasters who are very keen to get access to good content because the studio SVODs are hanging on to some of their library product.”

In this sea of possibilities, however, the waters can get quite choppy. “There is still high, high demand for good storytelling, good scripted programs,” says Fred Burcksen, ZDF Enterprises’ president and CEO. “The market is almost overheated. There is so much demand, and that also indicates that it’s a challenge to find the right talent for the right production. We consider that the biggest challenge.”

“It continues to be a highly competitive world in this business, and it’s competitive across all aspects of production; not just talent, but within all disciplines and through the production value chain,” notes Fernando Szew, the CEO of MarVista Entertainment. “There is a lot of demand for content with a limited pool of capable producers and talent.”

“Clearly, there are challenges: Budgets are becoming bigger and bigger, there’s stiff competition when it comes to access to talent, and then, Covid-related, some budgets have been on hold recently,” adds Tim Gerhartz, the president and managing director of Red Arrow Studios International. “But the key message is that there are more opportunities than there are challenges.”

Despite the race for ideas, talent, crews and funding, producers and distributors remain in the scripted business because of high-end dramas and comedies’ capacity to create buzz, earn critical acclaim and win awards. The distribution pipes to viewers may have changed, but prestige TV’s unique characteristics have not.

“Those early shows, like Mad Men, Breaking Bad and a slew of others that have come since, were auteur-driven, highly serialized, non-formulaic shows—the antithesis of a broadcast procedural,” observes Kevin Beggs, chair of Lionsgate Television Group. “Back then, they were the outliers, but today they’re the mainstream because the conglomerates have become focused on streaming platforms. Streaming is consumed on a binge basis that is more like reading a great novel. The shows don’t have to be tied to a weekly airdate or time, which changes the story dynamics immensely in terms of what you can accomplish. And we’ve seen that these kinds of series are capturing more and more critical attention.”

Streaming services rely on high-end shows to attract paying customers. “In the subscription business, premium series that people feel are worth paying for matter,” continues Beggs. “This is not a cable or satellite package for which you’re paying a flat fee. With subscription services, people are deciding whether they’re going to pay $8.99 or $16.99 [each] or somewhere in between for several services and whether that’s a good value proposition. So, the more premium, the better.”

VOD platforms not only need to attract customers, but they also have to retain them. Buzzy new titles draw first-time subscribers; long-running popular series can engender viewer loyalty.

“If you look at the shows we’re delivering next year, many of those are returning series: Peaky Blinders, Grantchester, The Good Karma Hospital and Beck, among many others,” says Banijay Rights’ Payne. “Moreover, within our library are several scripted multi-season franchises that continue to sell strongly cycle after cycle. We have been pleasantly surprised by the in-demand reaction we received from relaunching a number of such franchises this year, including Broadchurch.”

“With the studio SVODs, there has been a huge demand for library content,” notes All3Media’s Pedersen. “If you have a decent library of shows—and we just bought the [NENT Studios UK, formerly DRG] library, which is another 10,000 hours or so—there are opportunities for co-productions, presales or library deals. AVOD, in particular, has been an opportunity for us to exploit shows in a different rights window and for a longer period of time. It feels like there are lots and lots of opportunities, which is really positive.

“As for the challenges, new entrants to the market, like the AVOD/FAST licensees, require a different set of rights,” continues Pedersen. “We have to make sure we are being smart about the rights windows that we grant so we can maximize revenue for our content across as many windows as possible.”

With all the time, effort and money put into producing a show, a great deal of work goes into placing it on the appropriate channel or platform. “You need two parties to find the right home for your content,” says ZDF Enterprises’ Burcksen. “It starts with the buyers of the networks or platforms. You need to listen carefully to their needs. It begins with their requests. Every discussion we have about product starts with: What are you looking for? What is your target audience? What’s the playout? Is it more linear, more nonlinear? Is it a combination of the two? And that, combined with the knowledge of our titles, will hopefully lead to a perfect solution for the program.”

The competition for shows is so heated that placement is often tied to financing. “There are certain shows that are very big and might be out of reach for some parties,” says Payne. “But my golden rule, and it’s always paid off, is that if you find the right editorial fit for the story, the financing will come together.”

With so many projects in development, writers’ imaginations and producers’ visions are not the sole domains of creativity. There is plenty of resourcefulness in today’s financing models, of which there are many.

Lionsgate has a history of working with platforms. Beggs credits his colleague Sandra Stern, the president of the television group, for pioneering these deals. “Sandra single-handedly engineered an entire business model with Netflix. There was no blueprint, and she has gone on to do that again and again, with shows at Apple, Amazon, Hulu and most recently at Roku. Her partner in crime in that space, because the two of them function hand in hand, is Jim Packer [Lionsgate’s president of worldwide TV and digital distribution]. Roku and Zoey’s Extraordinary Christmas comes out of all the business Jim is doing, selling them library, and crafting a relationship around movies and reruns of series. He asked, Is there something we can do with Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist? That evolved into a movie conversation. Then Sandra and her team helped craft what that will look like. You need to be willing to spend the time to do it because these are important new markets for us, and we have to come up with a formula that’s fair and incentivizes both sides to want to do more,” Beggs adds.

“There is no one solution that fits all situations; it really depends on the project,” explains Red Arrow Studios International’s Gerhartz. “We’re getting involved in new projects pretty much in every possible way—from classic acquisitions to investments in development at the very early stage. Our project Inspector Maigret, which we’re doing with Playground, would be an example. We’re also involved in deficit financing. We’re also teaming up with equity partners. It’s a whole mix. We are invested and involved in pretty much every stage of the value chain, and we’re very flexible when it comes to finding the right model. It really depends on the show and the idea.”

As All3Media’s Pedersen points out, there are new players contributing money to the development process. “Broadcasters are still funding a lot, of course, but there is development going on outside the broadcasters, particularly in the U.K. That’s been a change. That’s all about distributors and financiers coming in early to get shows they think will travel that they really like. It’s about securing your position early in the process.”

“Maybe a decade ago, you could wait until you could see a rough cut or read a script,” adds ZDF Enterprises’ Burcksen. “Now you have to get involved in the early development by securing rights, maybe book rights, but you need to be involved from the beginning. Then it comes down to, Is this mainly a local production? Is it an international co-production? Is it being financed by a platform completely, or do you need more than one partner?”

“We’ve got examples of each way of financing,” continues Burcksen. “We have a series called The Window, about the complex and dark off-field machinations of the world of soccer. It was produced by Germany’s Boogie Entertainment and ZDF Enterprises, in co-production with Japan’s Fuji Television Network and Belgium’s Velvet Films and Streamz. We’ve also done more complicated co-productions where we need six or seven partners to finance the high-end production. It comes down to: Is it a true international co-production or is it a more local project that is being covered by two partners? For instance, Scandinavian crime dramas are financed by the Scandinavians and ZDF. We have Agatha Christie’s Hjerson, a modern-day Agatha Christie spin-off. It was produced by BR•F, TV4/C More, ZDF, Agatha Christie Ltd. and Nadcon Film. The financing model was relatively simple, but there are more complicated examples as well.”

The PSB (public-service broadcasting) financing model is still strong in the U.K., explains All3Media’s Pedersen. “Broadcasters come in with a significant percentage of financing, a distributor comes in and probably matches it, and you’ve got a tax credit as well. That’s a model we like, but, increasingly, we are financing shows by bringing in one or two co-commissioning partners—a show like Van der Valk, which had ARD, PBS Masterpiece, ITV’s BritBox and All3Media International. Partners don’t pay the full freight commissioning fee but more of a co-production level fee. Another example is our new detective series Dalgliesh, financed by us, Acorn TV and Channel 5. In essence, there used to be one dominant model of financing for U.K. distributors, but we are now working with producers on more creative ways of getting shows into production.”

Working with both internal and third-party producers, Banijay Rights’ teams are aware of their slates from their very early stages. “We’ll read pitches,” explains Payne. “We’ll discuss writers. Sometimes we get involved in options. Then we will look at what we think the financing plan will be, how we’ll take it to market and who the main targets are. For me, it’s always about the right editorial target—where the series has the best chance of success and return for further seasons.”

Payne adds, “At Banijay, because we have no intention of launching our own direct-to-consumer offering—we are platform-agnostic—we’ll look at where we think is the best home for a story and get it to them early. Then we work on a finance plan—when and how we’ll finance the project. Our slate, in terms of investment, is always a mixed economic model. There will be some titles you will feel confident to stand in front of a large deficit from the outset and other projects where you do need to bring in a partner up front to move ahead. Five years ago, my rule was that deficits were approximately 20 percent of the budget. They’re not that anymore. They are between 40 percent and 50-plus percent.”

Covid safety protocols, longer shooting schedules and production halts have also impacted budgets, on average between 15 percent and 30 percent, depending on a show’s complexity.

Inevitably, the high demand for and increased volume of scripted have impacted the way series are made. “The quality bar has risen on every aspect: the auspices, the performers that go into these shows, the writers and directors, production,” says Lionsgate’s Beggs. “This line that used to exist, what I call the Maginot Line, between theatrical movies and television has been crossed. Talent is freely going back and forth across that line in all areas. There’s almost no motion picture artist that isn’t dabbling in TV in one form or another.”

“And everything is supercharged,” continues Beggs. “How do you market or get attention for a show in this 500-series universe? Creators and producers really care about that; it’s part of the ecosystem. Where is the marketing? Who is going to promote? All this leads back to a new enhanced reliance on intellectual property, preexisting material, or audiences that come built in. That leads you into this explosion over the past ten years that has really focused on existing IP—book, feature film, podcast and article adaptations—because there’s an assumption that fans will show up, and if it’s good, stick around.”

“High-end, high-budget, English-language series from the U.K. and the U.S., but also from Canada, ideally based on an existing IP—that’s what’s really traveling internationally,” says Red Arrow Studios International’s Gerhartz. “An example in the case of Red Arrow would be Vienna Blood. It’s doing really, really well. Another example would be Departure, which is a production from Shaftesbury that we’re selling worldwide.”

“That reliance on IP is quite different from Matthew Weiner conceiving of Mad Men out of thin air,” adds Beggs. “Or Jenji Kohan conceiving of Weeds out of thin air, or any of the shows we have: Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist from Austin Winsberg and Eric and Kim Tannenbaum. Or Love Life from Sam Boyd and Paul Feig, starring Anna Kendrick, now going into a second season. These are high-concept original ideas, but they are fewer and farther between in a world of managing risk in which we have to decide where to put our resources and into which subject matter.”

There are original ideas coming from non-English-language territories. Not so long ago, these series could not break into English-speaking territories. But today, compelling stories can.

“It probably started with the Scandinavian noir series some 15 years ago,” recalls ZDF Enterprises’ Burcksen. “I remember The Killing. The BBC bought the series from us and decided to televise it in the original language with English subtitles. That was daring at the time and a real breakthrough. Since then, it comes down to the story, not the language. The Scandinavian wave is still very strong. We’ve seen it flow toward Belgium, which offers a good output of original content. Spain is coming up, and we are currently looking at Central and Eastern Europe. We have some great content from Ukraine and Russia. It’s not about the language anymore.”

“As we speak about more and more pay and VOD platforms being available, we see a strong demand for non-English-language, more complex productions,” adds Red Arrow Studios International’s Gerhartz. “Those could come from anywhere. What counts at the end of the day is quality, and quality travels. For example, we have a show called Dignity, which was produced for a German channel and for Chile, and we placed it with HBO in the Nordics and Europe but also on Amazon Prime in Latin America. These are examples that also work very, very well.”

Banijay Rights also has a robust slate. “We have quite a lot of non-English shows launching, mainly because so much of them have come from markets that initially weren’t as affected by production shutdowns,” notes Payne. “We have Germinal, which premiered at Series Mania. We’ve got shows coming from the Nordics, Italy and Israel, a wonderful, very rich non-English selection of content including Detective Maria KallioMy Ballerina, A Class Apart, Bonnie & Clyde, Hierro season two, The Store That Has It All, The Truth Will Out season two, and the third run of Poquelin and De Beaumont.”

Watching serialized dramas has often been likened to reading a novel—we can read as many chapters in one sitting as we like. Similarly, when bingeing, we can watch as many episodes as we want. However, sometimes, we don’t want to dive into a long tale; we prefer a short story. Television provides the equivalent: the movie.

While the name has evolved from made-for-television to made-for-platform, as MarVista’s Szew explains, this kind of scripted storytelling for the screen is increasingly in demand.

“No matter how these movies are labeled, made-for-platform movies are experiencing a lot of growth, almost a renaissance; not just in the volume, but the type of movies that are being made. This is driven by the different modes of consumption and the various ways that, as content creators, we get to exploit them for our distribution goals and for the talent we work with.”

Szew continues, “Another aspect that makes the made-for-platform movies so desirable, which we were beginning to see before the pandemic, is that many of the platforms are leaning into the 90-minute or two-hour movie, where the audience gets a full story in one sitting without having to commit to ‘binge.’

“We’re seeing recognizable and established talent understand that made-for-platform movies are yet another way of telling and delivering great stories. Today’s made-for-platform movie is no longer perceived as the ‘stepchild’ of the theatrical movie.”

As Szew explains, because these movies can now be promoted and featured alongside prestige TV series, they attract actors that might not have signed up for a cable movie a few years ago. One example is the movie The Fight Before Christmas, starring Dermot Mulroney, Hayley Orrantia and Janel Parrish.

Szew also remains committed to working with first-time storytellers and directors. MarVista has given actresses a chance at directing. “We are shifting and designing new creative outlets for talent,” says Szew. “We just finished a movie, Sweet Navidad, directed by actress Brittany Underwood, who also happens to be Latina. She leaned into her background to make this an authentic and beautiful movie. She did a phenomenal job directing the charming holiday movie that is a wonderful marriage of the crossover multiculturalism that exists in today’s America.”

The increased demand for content across linear and nonlinear platforms has been accompanied by a growing chorus of voices demanding diversity in subject matter and employment in front of and behind the camera.

Lionsgate and its sister premium service STARZ have been working with show­runners of color for years. Most recently, Katori Hall, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, made her first foray into television with P-Valley, “and what an impact the first season has had,” explains Beggs. “Now we’re into the second season. That is emblematic of exactly how STARZ and Lionsgate are focused on diverse voices and underserved audiences and delivering at the highest level with a fantastic business result on top of it, which is the fundamental premise of the diversity equation. Working with diverse talent to create inclusive and relatable content for our audiences is not only the right thing to do but smart business as well.”

About Anna Carugati

Anna Carugati is editor at large at World Screen.


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