Mansha Daswani checks in with a range of distributors to hear about what’s driving the brisk business in crime dramas today.
While conventional wisdom these days indicates that viewers (and, by extension, content buyers) are in the mood for light, uplifting stories to fill their downtime as the world struggles to emerge from life under Covid-19, the crime drama business is as busy as ever. Everyone loves a good whodunit, and the genre’s biggest selling point is perhaps that it can encompass multiple styles, from blue-sky procedurals to grisly, twisty-plot thrillers and everything in between.
“There is a trend towards lighter themed crime, but the classics are classics for a reason—narrative superiority always sells,” says Robert Franke, the VP of ZDFE.drama at ZDF Enterprises. “So even though the trend for new productions is lighter in tone and storytelling, it’s the mix of tones and styles that makes a good crime catalog. We offer something for all tastes and preferences.”
David Swetman, senior VP of scripted content at All3Media International, agrees, noting, “The great thing about the detective genre is that there is something for everyone.”
Plus, as Tim Gerhartz, president and managing director at Red Arrow Studios International, observes, “The rapid proliferation of options for content means there is now room for all types of shows. We’re seeing linear channels and platforms look to procedurals and series that are lighter in tone and easy to schedule. Whereas with pay-TV and VOD platforms, there is scope for more complex programming, which is maybe darker in tone and themes but keeps audiences gripped and returning episode after episode.”
One emerging trend is the “semi-procedural” crime drama, Franke says, with “case of the week-style shows with a strong story arc over a season. Also, the characters are becoming more balanced. There was a strong trend after Breaking Bad to similarly dark characters with almost no redeeming features. We see that this is changing and writers also show light within the dark, which is a good thing and helps make these shows more digestible.”
At All3Media, Swetman has observed increased interest in setting stories “in more diverse precincts, and within communities or locales that we’ve not seen before in crime television.”
Hybrid storytelling, combining crime with fantasy, comedy, or historical settings, is also increasingly prevalent in the landscape, Gerhartz says.
“Hybrid stories that promote co-viewing seem to be hitting a strong note with audiences around the world,” agrees Paula McHarg, the head of Europe and North America at GoQuest Media. “Whereas in the past, straight, tough crime stories were an enduring pastime, audiences during the pandemic have taken to dramedies, crime-inspired family dramas, thrilling love stories and various other types of hybrids.”
Distributors are also seeing a continued need for volume. ORF-Enterprise, for example, has fared well with its long-running series Soko Kitzbuehel and Fast Forward, which is heading into its seventh season. “Broadcasters and platforms from all over the world have been picking Austrian crime dramas for years and had great ratings and audience feedback,” reports Armin Luttenberger, head of content sales international at ORF-Enterprise.
At All3Media, meanwhile, the detective brand Midsomer Murders has been a strong seller for two decades. “The absolute key is to keep a strong focus on the scripts so that stories remain compelling, exciting and innovative,” says Swetman on how to build a long-running show. “Detective shows also provide great opportunities to bring in well-loved actors for guest roles, which keeps the audience engaged.”
The key, distributors argue, is having a breadth of different formats and types of stories.
“We feature a wide variety of crime-themed shows from all European territories,” says ZDFE.drama’s Franke. “Most notably, of course, is our slate of Scandi noir classics like The Killing and The Bridge, but also newer shows like Before We Die or our upcoming highlight Agatha Christie’s Sven Hjerson for later this year. We also offer English-language crime shows like London Kills and the upcoming U.K. remake of Before We Die and our extensive catalog of best-selling German procedural crime.”
Swetman highlights the depth of the All3Media offering, ranging from “lighthearted adventure” in shows like Agatha Raisin and Ms Fisher’s Modern Murder Mysteries to the “darker edge” of a Van Der Valk and Mystery Road.
Red Arrow is showcasing returning seasons of two successful shows: the period piece Vienna Blood and the Canadian conspiracy thriller Departure. It also has a stable of crime dramas based on literary IP, including Bosch for Amazon Prime Video—with production underway on the seventh and final season—and Stella Blómkvist, which is heading into season two on Síminn TV and Viaplay.
Gerhartz notes that the Red Arrow portfolio not only features diversity in storytelling modes, but in financial models too.
“We have a mix of both locally produced and international co-productions within our crime drama slate,” Gerhartz says. “For example, Bosch is a local production from Fabrik Entertainment, while Vienna Blood crosses borders within Europe and is produced by Endor Productions and MR Film in Austria for ORF and ZDF. Our series Dignity is a Chilean and German co-production.”
Co-productions are undoubtedly key to the financing of many new crime dramas on the market, especially as production costs rise due to Covid-19 safety measures and broadcasters look for smarter, financially sound ways to bring high-end stories to the screen. One of All3Media’s new launches is Dalgliesh, based on the beloved P.D. James’ detective, with Bertie Carvel in the lead and Channel 5 and Acorn TV on board as commissioning partners. The company is also showcasing Annika, with Nicola Walker, set in Glasgow and made with UKTV and PBS Masterpiece.
All3Media International has a strong track record in negotiating financial and creative partnerships with U.S. outlets and is now looking to do the same in Europe, “building on ARD Degeto’s involvement in commissioning Van Der Valk with U.S. and U.K. partners,” Swetman says. “We are presently collaborating on a new show from Iceland called Black Sands and are discussing the show with other partners now.”
ZDFE.drama’s Franke observes that all markets have their own strong traditions in crime drama, “and every territory does it a little differently,” he says. “Local shows tend to be fully financed by either a local channel or platform since they generally travel a bit less compared to these bigger types of event crime shows with more complex setups. The Bridge and The Team are good examples of shows that are perfect for co-productions. So it is important to understand the story and if it is strong enough to fly as a co-production.”
GoQuest’s McHarg agrees, adding, “The opportunities for cross-border co-productions continue to grow immensely, but as always, there must be a true and real connection between the locations.”
In an industry in flux as it deals with the fallout of the pandemic, business models for drama, in general, will continue to evolve, Gerhartz says. “We’re increasingly finding many platforms open to a greater degree of flexibility when it comes to windowing across all genres of drama content, including crime. We expect this to continue as the cost of producing drama remains high, and the trend for producing local content continues.”