Blurring the Line Between Fiction & Truth

Real life can sometimes prove to be stranger and more inspiring than fiction. While documentaries are the obvious format for telling a true story, broadcasters and streamers have been finding success with dramas that fictionalize real events, especially those that have taken place in more recent history. Several distributors and producers talk to TV Drama Weekly about this unique burgeoning genre in the drama space.

“Audiences have been consuming and enjoying true-crime drama for many years, and the expansion into historical events is a natural extension to this,” notes Simon Cox, executive VP of content and acquisitions at Banijay Rights, which counts among its catalog Bali 2002, about the 2002 terrorist attacks in Indonesia, and Stonehouse, following the life of disgraced Labour politician John Stonehouse.

“Events in living history provide audiences with insight into worlds they have only had glimpses of on the news, expanding into these environments through the small screen,” Cox says.

“Viewers can more easily identify with stories that happened in real life,” adds Helge Köhnen, head of content sales at Bavaria Media, distributor of The Heart of Cape Town, an event drama telling the story of the first heart transplant in 1967. “True stories always have some kind of intrigue.”

“When it’s authentic, a story hits even harder,” concurs Pablo Salzman, president of Connect3 Media, producer of the Cineflix Rights-distributed film Sugar, centered on the Cocaine Cowgirls, two influencers who were pulled into a drug smuggling operation. “There’s always been a fascination with stories inspired by real events, especially in the true-crime space. Wrapped in strong, dramatic storytelling, audiences enjoy learning about key characters and events.”

Of course, the obvious difference between a documentary and a truth-based drama is that the latter requires more than just an interesting story—it needs a full-fledged intriguing script with well-written characters, which may require some embellishment, all the executives say. When basing programs on recent historical events, those involved may still be around, and this is something they must take into consideration when adding elements to the stories.

Banijay Rights’ Cox notes that the company ensures that “the level of embellishment is appropriate and respectful. Each story is thoroughly researched to ensure accuracy and authenticity. For example, the involvement of Bali bombing survivor Polly Miller in the creative process for Bali 2002 really established a truthful and realistic representation of the events of that tragic time. Drama still needs to be entertaining but also respectful of the past and the truth, as well as those involved.”

Sugar producer Salzman expresses a similar sentiment, noting, “We’ve always believed as a company it was important to reach out to stakeholders early and to work with them to ensure a project is tasteful and respectful. It’s frustrating to hear that some recent high-profile projects neglected to take this important step.”

With Bavaria Media’s The Heart of Cape Town, the level of embellishment was achieved by delving deeper into the historical event than ever before and telling the story of those who were overlooked in the past. Christian Popp, CEO of Producers at Work and producer of the film, says, “The Heart of Cape Town is not just about the 20th century’s milestone event of the first heart transplant. It also tells the story about people in the shadow of this historical event. The life of Hamilton Naki, who, as a Black man in an Apartheid state secretly helped prepare the first heart operation in Cape Town, can’t be found in medical history books. The fact that women in Germany had no career opportunities in surgery because of their gender, like our fictional character Dr. Lisa Scheel, is a historical side note, too.”

“These fates must be told in a film to give them voices,” even if a made-up character must be used to do so, Popp adds. “Fictionalizing true events is always a fine line between fiction and truth.”

Ultimately, though, “the key to international success of any drama is having a good script,” Banijay Rights’ Cox says. “In the real-story genre, the theme or story has to have a level of relevance or relatability for a global audience. Even the smallest of stories with the most unusual storylines can travel if the key themes are relatable.”

It does help, however, if the story being told is already somewhat known to the public. “Any drama’s success is rooted in the original true story, particularly one that is well-known and in the public domain,” says Tom Misselbrook, senior VP of scripted sales and development at Sugar distributor Cineflix Rights. Then, it is amplified by the characters and themes within the story.

As an example, he says Sugar “is an extraordinary story about two young women who were unwittingly lured into trafficking a large amount of cocaine into Australia via a cruise ship, which made headlines across the world. At the center of it are two women, seemingly naive and out of their depth, but it also explores some really interesting themes, from the price of fame through the prism of social media to identity and sexuality.”

With the development of every project, Salzman says he and his team consider how the story would make waves. “We often ask ourselves if it would make good conversation at a dinner party. Is it noisy? Is it something you would bring up?” Dramas based on real events fit the bill, with viewers eager to share the unbelievable real stories they watch on the screen.

“In an age where you can Google everything, the power of stories inspired by real events has only grown,” Salzman adds. “For broadcasters and platforms, it’s important to get people talking and curious about a new series.” And expanding on a true story that previously made headlines is a surefire way for platforms to intrigue and draw in audiences.