World Screen recaps the major trends in the drama business in 2019.
As the number of scripted series broadcast in the U.S. alone topped the 500-mark last year, producers, networks and platforms continued to clamor for access to big-name talent, in front of and behind the camera. Netflix landed a deal with David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, creators of Game of Thrones (for a reported $200 million), just a few months after that show ended its run on HBO. WarnerMedia was able to hold onto its alliance with J.J. Abrams and sealed a pact with Bryan Cranston. Fresh off her multiple Emmy wins, Phoebe Waller-Bridge entered into an overall deal with Amazon Studios, which also inked a first-look agreement with Carnival Row star Orlando Bloom. Sony Pictures Television secured an overall television deal with Phil Lord and Chris Miller. Lionsgate sealed a first-look deal with Mary J. Blige. MGM TV partnered with Renée Zellweger and Carmella Casinelli’s production company, as well as with Akiva Goldsman and his production company.
The quest to access leading writers and producers was equally intense outside of the U.S. Fremantle, for example, partnered with Natalie Dormer’s Dog Rose Productions, Fabula (founded by Pablo and Juan de Dios Larraín) and Richard Brown’s Passenger; launched the new label Castlefield; and made an equity investment in the production company The Immigrant. all3media launched a new scripted production label, West Road Pictures, fronted by Jonathan Fisher. BBC Studios invested in Firebird Pictures. Banijay Rights aligned with Ellie Wood of the U.K. indie Clearwood Films. Dominic Treadwell-Collins (A Very English Scandal) teamed with ITV Studios for a new scripted label.
Meanwhile, Walter Iuzzolino, Jo McGrath and Jason Thorp, the team behind Walter Presents, unveiled Eagle Eye Drama, which will focus on producing English-language drama series inspired by hit foreign-language shows they have championed on the on-demand service. Channel 4 has a minority stake in the venture.
Known IP remained crucial in 2019, with a host of reboots and franchise extensions. The CW picked up Batwoman and revealed development on Superman & Lois. CBS All Access said it was developing a new series set in the Star Trek universe. HBO ordered a Game of Thrones prequel. FOX announced a 9-1-1 spin-off. Freeform unveiled a Party of Five reboot. Viacom International Studios adapted the Hitchcock classic To Catch a Thief as a Spanish-language series. A reboot of the classic police drama Bergerac is in the works for Paramount Network International. Paramount Network in the U.S. ordered a ten-episode first season of Sexy Beast, based on the award-winning film. The 1999 teen movie Varsity Blues is being resurrected for Quibi, which also ordered Swimming with Sharks. all3media international notched up a slew of deals for a Van der Valk reboot.
And then there were all the book and graphic novel adaptations announced in 2019. Netflix alone said it was working on Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman, Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse novels, Harlan Coben’s The Stranger, Karin Slaughter’s Pieces of Her, Liu Cixin’s The Wandering Earth, Kristin Hannah’s Firefly Lane, Walter Tevis’ The Queen’s Gambit and Søren Sveistrup’s The Chestnut Man, among others. The streamer also announced The Girls on the Bus, inspired by a chapter of Amy Chozick’s Chasing Hillary.
At Amazon, which rolled out Good Omens globally in 2019, book-based projects include Thirteen (from the graphic novel Six), Agatha Christie’s The Pale Horse (with BBC One), a Jack Reacher series and The Banker’s Wife (based on the Cristina Alger novel). Hulu partnered with BBC Three on Normal People, adapted from Sally Rooney’s best-selling book, and with MGM for The Testaments, Margaret Atwood’s sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale. Gearing up for its 2020 launch, HBO Max said it was developing Circe, based on the Madeline Miller bestseller, and UNpregnant, adapted from the YA novel. CBS All Access ordered The Stand, based on the Stephen King novel, and The Man Who Fell to Earth. Apple TV+ slated Foundation, based on Isaac Asimov’s novel series of the same name. And that’s just the streamers.
FX picked up Y: The Last Man, based on the graphic novel. EPIX greenlit a drama based on the short story Jerusalem’s Lot by Stephen King. Showtime opted for The Good Lord Bird, based on the novel by James McBride; Ripley, based on Patricia Highsmith’s best-selling quintet of Tom Ripley novels; Three Women, based on the nonfiction bestseller by Lisa Taddeo; and Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. Ture Sventon and the Secret of the Bermuda Triangle, based on Åke Holmberg’s classic novels, is headed to TV4 and C More. ITV commissioned Tenacity, based on the J.S. Law novel. Channel 5 commissioned All Creatures Great and Small, with Masterpiece on PBS co-producing. France Télévisions, ZDF, Rai and Seven are on board an adaptation of Jules Verne’s classic Around the World in 80 Days. Shekhar Kapur is directing a series based on Amitav Ghosh’s best-selling Ibis trilogy.
Other books optioned for TV in 2019 include Mahesh Rao’s Polite Society, Cherie Dimaline’s The Marrow Thieves, Óskar Guðmundsson’s Hilma, Preti Taneja’s We That Are Young, Robert Harris’ The Second Sleep, Chuck Palahniuk’s Invisible Monsters, Jan Guillou’s The Great Century, Jamila Gavin’s The Robber Baron’s Daughter and Peter James’ Perfect People.
In addition, A+E Studios partnered with Macmillan Publishers’ YA imprint Swoon Reads, CTV struck up a brand and content agreement with Harlequin Studios for a slate of TV movies, and a host of companies partnered with Wattpad, including Sony Pictures Television.
Crime remained a top-seller in drama in 2019, including series based on real-life cases. Of note, BBC One and Netflix are partnering to tell the story of serial killer Charles Sobhraj in The Serpent; UCP is working on Dr. Death, about Dr. Christopher Duntsch; ITV and AMC are telling the story behind the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? cheating scandal; and White House Farm, about a family murdered in Essex in 1985, is headed to ITV, as is Des, about serial killer Dennis Nilsen.
Biopics also remain popular, with the year seeing announcements about series or movies inspired by Dame Joan and Jackie Collins, Marilyn Monroe, Howard Marks, Evel Knievel, Leonardo da Vinci and Spanish musician Joaquín Sabina, among many others.
The last year saw the arrival of several new buyers and commissioners (Alibi ordered its first scripted original, Spectrum nabbed a number of series, Topic launched in the U.S., Joyn started operations in Germany). This year brings HBO Max, Quibi and others. And yet while the number of potential homes for a project is proliferating, financing isn’t getting any easier as budgets rise—alongside audience expectations. Coming up with smarter ways to cobble together budgets while keeping the quality on-screen will be a key priority for producers and distributors in the year ahead. As will finding ways to make an impact as the number of series in production continues to mushroom.