As drama distributors scrambled to deal with shutdown costs and the increased budgets needed to be COVID-19 compliant post-lockdowns, they could at least take solace in the fact that demand for quality library product has been surging amid the pandemic. With so much production shuttered or delayed, broadcasters and streaming platforms alike have been clamoring for content to keep stuck-at-home viewers entertained. Of note, Vuulr reported that drama was the most in-demand genre of overall deal negotiations on the sales platform in 2020. And the demand for completed titles is likely to remain strong through the first half of the year, as surging COVID-19 levels in the U.S. and many other major drama-production markets could mean even more delays in the delivery of new series. Indeed, just four months ago, Ampere Analysis predicted that high-end scripted content producers are facing delays of 12 months or more due to COVID-19.
Likely to benefit from this are those markets where production has been less impacted, among them Korea, Scandinavia and Turkey, continuing the trend toward a greater acceptance of foreign-language series—and subtitles—across the globe. In analyzing what U.S. viewers were streaming on the platform in 2020, Netflix revealed that viewing of foreign-language titles was up by more than 50 percent compared to 2019. And that interest was seen in other markets in the Netflix footprint, the platform said: Money Heist: Part 4 (Spain) hit the top 10 in 92 countries, Barbarians (Germany) in 91, #Alive (Korea) in 90, Ragnarok (Norway) in 89 and Lost Bullet (France) in 89.
Even as production slowed in 2020, commissioning and development continued, with producers and investors demonstrating an apparent preference for known IP, be it true stories, books and comics, feature films or video games.
While there were some pandemic-life series and specials put into fast-turnaround production—and the announcement of a limited series about British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his handling of the crisis—creatives and commissioners mostly stayed away from unveiling scripted series overtly about COVID-19. We saw many announcements for series being developed around historical and contemporary figures (Empress Elisabeth, Cristóbal Balenciaga, Eleanor of Aquitaine, “Joe Exotic,” Tiger Woods, Colin Kaepernick, Josephine Baker, Benjamin Netanyahu, Francesco Totti and Michelle Obama, to name just a few). Numerous novels were optioned or commissioned for adaptation, among them Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, Ann Cleeves’ The Long Call, Trenton Lee Stewart’s The Mysterious Benedict Society, Louise Candlish’s Our House, CJ Tudor’s The Chalk Man, Harlan Coben’s Stay Close, Andrew O’Hagan’s Mayflies, Jo Nesbø’s The Son, P.D. James’ Inspector Dalgliesh Mysteries, Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem, Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent, Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends, Elena Ferrante’s The Lying Life of Adults, Helen Cresswell’s Moondial and Lauren Beukes’ The Shining Girls. AMC Networks acquired Anne Rice’s major literary works, The Vampire Chronicles series and The Lives of the Mayfair Witches series, encompassing 18 titles. New spins on classics like Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau are also in the works.
Comic books and graphic novels were also a hot commodity in 2020, for example, DMZ from Roberto Patino, Ava DuVernay and Warner Bros. Television, based on the comic series from DC; and Paper Girls by Brian K. Vaughan and Cliff Chiang. Podcasts, too, are increasingly fertile ground for series adaptation, including Netflix’s announced Archive 81. Feature films serving as the basis for new series include Willow on Disney+ and Blindspotting on Starz. Starz also extended its Power franchise in 2020, while Netflix added a The Witcher prequel and CBS All Access (soon to be Paramount+) revealed a new Star Trek spinoff. Meanwhile, FOX announced a Fantasy Island reboot, Showtime is bringing Dexter back for a limited series, and HBO Max ordered Pretty Little Liars: Original Sin. Video games being developed into series include Resident Evil, Fallout and Brothers in Arms.
The quest for writing and producing talent was as frenetic as ever in 2020. On the investment front, Legendary Entertainment partnered with showrunners Emma Frost and Matthew Graham to form a new U.K.-based joint venture, Watford & Essex. Producer Nicola Shindler launched a new scripted label within ITV Studios. Tobi de Graaff, formerly with BBC Studios, set up Beiboot Representation in partnership with Anton. Sony Pictures Television acquired a majority stake in the London-based production company Eleven. Telefónica and Atresmedia jointly launched Buendía Estudios. STUDIOCANAL upped its stake in STUDIOCANAL TV/TANDEM Productions to 100 percent. Sky Studios acquired minority stakes in Longboat Pictures, a new independent production company specializing in TV drama, and The Lighthouse, founded by BBC Studios alums Hilary Salmon, Radford Neville and Nick Betts. Producers Anni Faurbye Fernandez, Moa Westeson and Cindy Hanson set up the Nordic drama production company Nevis Productions, with investment support from the London-based indie Nevision. Gaspard de Chavagnac and Marina Williams teamed up to launch Asacha Media Group, a newly formed European content creation group backed by private-equity firm Oaktree. Datsit Sphere acquired the scripted producer Sienna Films from Kew Media Group, which folded before the pandemic. Endeavor Content entered into a strategic partnership with The Ink Factory, acquiring a minority stake in the studio. Newen launched a new U.K. production company, Ringside Studios, in collaboration with English producer Gub Neal and production house DoveTale Media. STV Productions acquired a minority equity stake in the drama producer Two Cities Television. In terms of talent alliances, meanwhile, there were plenty, including HBO Max partnering with Salma Hayek, Apple landing a deal with Ridley Scott, and Universal Television keeping Dick Wolf at his longtime home.