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Flights of Fancy

There was a time when sci-fi and fantasy were perceived to be the exclusive preserve of the arcade-dwelling, bike-riding, Dungeons & Dragons­–obsessed adolescent boys depicted so exquisitely in the Netflix series Stranger Things. But that series, together with Marvel and DC Comics adaptations, HBO’s Game of Thrones and AMC’s The Walking Dead, have helped transform perceptions of geek culture. As the success of events like Comic-Con vividly illustrates, sci-fi and fantasy-based TV series are now capable of attracting significant audiences across gender and age demographics.

Rola Bauer, the managing director of STUDIOCANAL TV, says, “There is a definite growth in interest in ‘what’s out there’—which is probably because ‘what’s here’ is disturbing and not particularly comfortable at the moment. In our case, we have started production on War of the Worlds, a Howard Overman adaptation of H. G. Wells’ timeless story, set in Europe today.”

Arguably the first great alien-invasion story, War of the Worlds was written in 1897. But in Bauer’s view, its narrative themes continue to resonate, making the transition to a modern setting relatively straightforward.

“It is an extremely relevant story reflecting our world today as we stagger through global upheaval. The narrative Howard has created is emotional and character-driven. It is a fusion of human drama and science fiction at its best. It’s also a story about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances—a universal theme that transcends borders.”

Historically, sci-fi and fantasy-based TV series tended to be led by the American market; so the fact that a Europe-anchored company like STUDIOCANAL is investing in the genre is a sign of how the global market has shifted. But there are also financial implications. So how has STUDIOCANAL constructed a big-budget sci-fi series fronted by the likes of Gabriel Byrne and Elizabeth McGovern? The answer, says Bauer, is co-production, a model she has used with ambitious period pieces like The Pillars of the Earth.

“We have worked hard on building a major co-production partnership for War of the Worlds, made up of Canal+, Fox Networks Group Europe & Africa, AGC Television and STUDIOCANAL. This is completely necessary to deliver a stand-out series—this is 8×60-minutes of cinematic scale production—with an exceptional cast, leading writers and award-winning talent behind the camera. A series of this high caliber demands a substantial budget, and that can only really be achieved these days through a like-minded international production partnership.”

War of the Worlds will debut this year on Canal+ in France, and on FOX in more than 50 countries across Europe and Africa. Bauer is optimistic the series can live on a range of platforms. “Commitment from strong pay-TV platforms enabled the series to be created, but the AGC and STUDIOCANAL teams will be looking to place the drama with the best platform or broadcaster in multiple territories. And we know there is demand from OTT, pay and free-to-air networks.”

Cathy Payne, the CEO of Endemol Shine International, says her company has enjoyed broad-based success with Humans on broadcasters such as Channel 4 and AMC. But she stresses that VOD platforms have played a pivotal role in the recent rise of sci-fi and fantasy. Among the titles on Endemol Shine’s slate are Black Mirror, which shifted from Channel 4 to Netflix early in its life cycle, and Dark, a Netflix original.

“While a genre like sci-fi has always had a very loyal audience, in individual territories such as Australia it can generate small numbers compared to broader offerings,” Payne says. “However, global platforms that have the ability to consolidate audiences from many territories can deliver a significant number.”

In addition to this ability to aggregate genre audiences, Payne says there is an editorial fit between sci-fi and fantasy and VOD. “VOD services provide the perfect environment for binge-viewing, which is often associated with genre fans. Furthermore, straight-to-series production orders can make genre budgets more affordable, and, in general, their premises are set up for multiple seasons—another reason why you see so many on streaming platforms.”

Echoing Bauer’s point about international co-pros, Payne says it is tough for a linear player in a single territory to fund high-end genre events in isolation. (Humans, for example, was a Channel 4 and AMC co-production.) “I would say U.S. networks are the only ones large enough to commission the more expensive genre pieces. More generally, linear channels need co-pros or distributor-deficit-funded models to fill the gap. This is even the case for SYFY U.S. commissions that have often not been fully funded in the U.S.”

Christian Vesper, the executive VP and creative director of global drama at Fremantle, agrees that pure genre pieces tend to sit most naturally with pay TV and VOD, but he says shows with genre elements are creeping into mainstream free-to-air schedules. BBC’s The City and the City and SS-GB “are examples of limited-run series that combine the feel of a procedural drama with heightened genre elements,” Vesper says. “I think it’s a way for creatives to explore new ideas and concepts.”

He says that a taste for genre-based series continues to be present among Fremantle’s production subsidiaries. “Our Danish producer Miso Film teamed up with Netflix on The Rain, a thriller that is set a few years after a virus has wiped out most people in Scandinavia,” says Vesper. “And we are in development with the acclaimed director Michael Haneke on a scripted series called Kelvin’s Book, kind of a cross between The White Ribbon and The Hunger Games.”

Vesper, whose company is currently working with Starz on season two of American Gods, agrees that genre pieces often need a big U.S. backer or a co-production arrangement to justify the cost of production. “But there are lower-budget shows where the skill of the writer can make a world believable without lots of expense on design and special effects.”

Payne agrees that certain styles of genre TV, like horror and time travel, don’t need to be expensive. “Audience awareness can be generated by platform recommendations. If you look at shows like Dark and The Rain on Netflix, they are not hugely expensive but perform well.”

Vesper believes the sector has reinvented itself in a way that makes it more appealing to a female audience. Shows like Wynonna Earp, Jessica Jones, Orphan Black and Supergirl all confirm the shift taking place in sci-fi and fantasy—as does CBS All Access’s decision to make Sonequa Martin-Green the lead in its big-budget Star Trek: Discovery reboot. No less dramatic was BBC Studios’ decision to cast a woman, Jodie Whittaker, as the lead in the company’s classic time-traveling series, Doctor Who.

Martin Rakusen, BBC Studios’ commercial director for fiction, says that the decision has been vindicated by the success of the show, both at home and internationally. “It has performed well among its traditional audience, but we’ve also seen growth among female audiences—to the extent the show is fifty-fifty between genders.”

A long-running free-to-air flagship, Doctor Who runs counter to the idea that genre series belong on pay TV or SVOD. For Rakusen, its importance to BBC One is partly due to its heritage. “But the current interest in genre is also about the need for brand-defining series that can build a loyal audience. And it also plays into broadcasters’ desire to reach young audiences.”

Outside of Doctor Who, Rakusen says genre is “a big part of what we do. We are also involved in Good Omens, a co-pro with Amazon based on the work of Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett; His Dark Materials, Bad Wolf’s adaptation of Philip Pullman’s novels (a co-pro with HBO); and The Watch, another Pratchett adaptation, this one for BBC America.” Dracula with Netflix and an adaptation of Michael Moorcock’s Runestaff series of novels can be added to this impressive list.

Rakusen agrees with his peers that sci-fi and fantasy “don’t have to break the bank with Game of Thrones–style CGI, but it is rare for them to be made on a domestic license. So we are very active in co-production. We partner with HBO and SVOD and, increasingly, are talking to some European companies about partnerships.”

Overall, he says, the market is still very focused on “serialized dramas with a single writer’s voice underpinning them. Anthologies and story-of-the-week are tougher propositions. In terms of keeping people engaged, I think it is about characters that people can fall in love with, and expansive worlds that spin off in lots of interesting directions and raise big themes. There is so much to choose from that being visually distinctive is also vital.”

And, he says, the job isn’t over at the end of each episode or series. “We look closely at licensing, social, digital content,” says Rakusen, “because you have to keep up a dialogue with fans all the time.”

Dan March, the managing partner of Dynamic Television, says his company “loves developing sci-fi shows because [these] audiences have been underserved for years—especially in Europe. OTT and pay-TV channels realized that a couple of years ago and are now capitalizing. Netflix, in particular, is focusing on genre programming more and more, which is extremely effective counter­programming to mainstream series on linear networks.”

Another part of the appeal, he says, is that science fiction is such a broad genre. “It’s an umbrella for supernatural, creature, post-apocalyptic, fantasy, space and true science fiction, among others. So all the subgenres create a broad array of storytelling opportunities. For example, Z Nation (creature/post-apocalyptic), Wynonna Earp (supernatural) and Van Helsing (vampire) are all sci-fi shows but are quite different from one another. If we had three crime shows, chances are they’d have more similarities.”

Another upside, he argues, is that sci-fi’s audience appeal is broader than most industry insiders might expect. “The audience is more gender-even than people realize, and sci-fi viewers range from 18 to 64-plus. They are more content-driven than demographically defined, and they are also extremely loyal and smart.”

Having said this, he stresses that the genre is not easy to finance, in part because of the hit-and-miss record of free-to-air networks. “They have dabbled, but not always successfully. Their target audience is broad and sci-fi has always been viewed as niche, so I think big linear channels have either experimented and failed to capture the audiences they need, or are just not willing to try.”

This, says March, presents challenges when developing and producing science-fiction shows. “For an independent company like ours, the challenge with financing sci-fi shows is that from a distribution perspective, they are acquired by cable channels with niche audiences and lower budgets. This puts more pressure on us to find co-production partners and to be very smart about the risks we can take, knowing free-TV linear channels are not the likely buyers. And with OTT services shifting their investment into original productions, our financial model on sci-fi shows can no longer safely assume that the OTTs are potential buyers.”

While fantasy series are picking up in Europe, they’ve long been a staple in Asia. India is a prolific producer of long-running fantasy and mythology-based series funded by the domestic broadcasters for local audiences. The distribution arms of those broadcasters are now eager to bring these shows to international screens.

“We have seen a resurgence in fantasy/costume drama series, including historical, supernatural and horror stories,” reports Debkumar Dasgupta, the senior VP and business head (syndication) at Viacom18/IndiaCast Media Distribution, which represents series like the Colors hit Naagin. “Set against larger-than-life backdrops and with mysticism at the core, this genre instantly finds a connection with viewers.”

Star India has a selection of costume dramas with mythological themes on its slate, including Mahabharat, Chandra Nandini and Siya Ke Ram. Gurjeev Kapoor, the president of distribution, notes, “Mythological content like Mahabharat has enjoyed stellar viewership in countries like Thailand and Malaysia. The initial response to Siya Ke Ram (Sita and Ram) in Russia a few months ago has also been very encouraging.”

Dynamic’s March takes the view that strong storytelling is the key criterion in making a successful show, rather than large budgets and a huge spectacle. “If Game of Thrones weren’t built on one of the greatest story structures ever told, all its spectacle wouldn’t be enough to sustain the audience it has rightfully earned. The fundamentals of great story­telling apply to sci-fi as much as any genre. Great ideas are built on strong structure, compelling characters we want to root for, or against, and layers of conflict in a unique and engaging setting. This doesn’t always have to be cost-prohibitive; character conflict doesn’t have to include a dragon destroying an empire.”

One way in which genre is distinct from many other forms of drama, however, is its emphasis on world-building, says March. “The challenge in developing an exciting series is not the hero or relationships, but the world-building—creating the rules that exist in this sci-fi world and understanding its logic and consequences.”

This emphasis on world-building probably explains why most successful genre productions are based on books or comics. To those already mentioned could be added SYFY’s adaptation of Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, MTV’s The Shannara Chronicles (based on novels by Terry Brooks) and Amazon’s upcoming Lord of the Rings production (which has a five-season commitment). The risk with shows that don’t have this preexisting structure is that they can run out of steam or collapse in on themselves after one season.

World-building aside, another big advantage of working with preexisting IP, according to Fremantle’s Vesper, is that “it makes it easier to walk in and pitch to commissioners. They are confronted with such a deluge of ideas that they welcome the familiar—it just means one less challenge.”

Endemol Shine’s Payne agrees that preexisting IP can give a series an immediate boost, but also points out that “VOD services have such appetites for fast-turnaround volume, they will seek out all forms of genre, whether original or derived from existing IP.”

BBC Studios has a rich array of classic genre IP, but Rakusen warns against creative complacency. “IP is a great starting point for writers, producers and commissioners. And it’s especially exciting when you get to work with living creators because you get inside their heads—learning about things that didn’t even make it to the page. But that doesn’t always reduce the challenge of adaptation. The world isn’t static, so you have to be constantly thinking about how to make this iconic IP work for this time and this audience.”

Pictured: BBC Studios’ Doctor Who.

About Andy Fry

Andy Fry is a frequent World Screen contributor.


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