High Drama

Mansha Daswani checks in with leading distributors about the latest developments in the global drama market.

Spectrum has emerged as the newest drama buyer in what is already a frenetic scripted landscape in the U.S. And reflecting trends in the broader market, the pay-TV platform appears to have extremely eclectic tastes; projects it has boarded for its Spectrum Originals lineup include the American procedural L.A.’s Finest, the Southern gothic series Paradise Lost, the Sky U.K. action thriller Curfew and Mediapro’s Spanish soccer drama Todo por el Juego (Side Games).

Spectrum’s scripted needs speak to a wider trend across the drama landscape: there’s no one particular genre or storytelling style in demand, and while some markets remain at the forefront in terms of output and reputation, a good idea really can come from anywhere. The challenge, of course, is in matching all those great ideas with the right homes for them.
“There is a sea of opportunity in drama, but you need to be smart about the right opportunity for the producer as well as the platform or the broadcaster,” observes Mark Linsey, the chief creative officer at BBC Studios.

“There is no quick fix—finding the right project and the right partners takes a good deal of time and experience,” adds Françoise Guyonnet, the executive managing director for TV series at STUDIOCANAL. “You need to be able to work with a group of creative partners and have the same creative vision from the outset.”

It’s also crucial to have a broad slate, notes Stephen Driscoll, the executive VP for EMEA and European co-productions at all3media international. “We tend to take a portfolio approach. We have lots of customers, so you need to offer them a variety of different types of shows.”

There are, however, a few things popping up frequently on buyers’ wish lists. “We see a trend toward lighter and more uplifting product,” observes Fred Burcksen, the president and CEO of ZDF Enterprises. “There is certain fatigue around bleak and dark shows, probably due to the current political and ecological state of the Earth. This leads viewers to look for more escapism in their daily lives.”

Procedurals, dramas with strong female leads, book adaptations and crime also remain in high demand, according to many of those surveyed for this piece. To answer some of those needs, ZDF Enterprises arrives at MIPCOM with the period dramas Ottilie von Faber-Castell, about the heiress of a crumbling business empire building a legacy for herself, and Dead Still.

Outside of specific genres, Burcksen identifies a broader division in the market. “We believe that there are two types of projects. The bread-and-butter mainstream projects remain successful because they stick to a proven recipe. They make it easy for users to decide to invest an hour of their time and watch a show because they know what they will get. And then some projects combine known plots in new and surprising constellations. In a world where the attention economy is the new reality, people are looking for either the well-familiar or the super-surprising.”

Agapy Kapouranis, the president of international television and digital distribution at Lionsgate, pinpoints the need for a “great storyteller with a flair for strong character development. Originality, authenticity and boldness are important, and having fresh creative voices behind the project with partners that support their vision is most important of all.”

Chris Stewart, commercial director for scripted at Banijay Rights, is on the lookout for “something we know we can market. A strong piece of IP. Particularly projects adapted from books. Something that the buyers and audience can buy into from the start, whether that’s a straight adaptation or a reboot of something familiar to them. Or a piece of casting: Wisting is a fantastic series, but it certainly helps to have Carrie-Anne Moss attached—it elevates it to a different level.”

And the bar has been raised for everyone, notes BBC Studios’ Linsey.
“I think buyers expect any script, any treatment, to be good, to be polished. People are asking for noisier genre, but at the same time, there’s room for looking at typical family relationships and the challenges of parenting. Particularly on SVOD, they are looking for universal themes. It’s about how we, as content providers, can establish the universality of those themes and make them accessible for a broad audience.”

SVOD trends are particularly challenging to identify, Driscoll at all3media notes. “In terms of linear broadcasters, we have detective procedural customers and we know they want more. When it comes to SVOD, it’s a bit more challenging. They might have had success with a young adult (YA) drama, a sci-fi drama or a true-crime drama, but that doesn’t mean they’ll want that next year. They want you to come with something new and fresh. That’s why we tend to take a portfolio approach. We want to have a good YA drama, an intriguing sci-fi drama, exciting domestic thrillers and interesting detective procedurals. We want to be talking to many different broadcasters about different shows, so people know we’re not trying to address just one sector of the market.”

At STUDIOCANAL, the emphasis remains on “premium drama with strong European roots that can be created in one or multiple languages,” Guyonnet notes. She highlights the political thriller Savages, the Movistar+ commission On Death Row, the book-based War of the Worlds and the crime drama Zero Zero Zero. “They must have strong, relatable storylines, big and bold characters and transcend borders to appeal to both linear and nonlinear viewers. Unique and original formats are also very important—finding new ways of telling stories that resonate with streaming viewers is vital these days.”

With the bar raised and budgets on the rise, “it’s pretty much all about co-production,” says Banijay’s Stewart on financing models. “It’s very rare for us to get a show that isn’t co-produced between at least two territories. Tax incentives and soft money play a huge part nowadays. There’s a massive race for all of the various funding [options] in Europe and elsewhere. Competition for this funding has increased massively over the last three years. [Creative Europe] MEDIA funding used to be a fairly done deal if you had a series set up with a couple of broadcasters in Europe. But now the competition to get that money is so fierce that it’s very hard to come by. You’ve got to have something strong that is going to stand out.”

On that front, Stewart spotlights The Gulf, set in New Zealand for TV3 and ZDF from Screentime, and returning seasons of Occupied, Rebecka Martinsson and The Restaurant.

At all3media, Driscoll points to Van der Valk as an innovative financing model that came out of the company wanting to meet the needs of some of its key clients. “Buyers have told us they love Midsomer Murders, Inspector George Gently and Foyle’s War, but there are not enough new detective procedurals on the market. We didn’t have a new one commissioned, so we talked to Michele [Buck, CEO for television at Company Pictures], who has produced lots of classic British detective shows. We said, We need a new one, even if it’s not commissioned, we want to go out and put together the financing for it. She then brought us the script for Van der Valk by Chris Murray. We knew there was an appetite for classic detective procedurals coming from Europe, which is why we took it to our European clients first. ARD Germany came on board as the key first customer, then NPO in the Netherlands. From that, all3media international greenlit the project. Once we set the ball rolling, Michele went back to ITV [which aired the original Van der Valk in the 1970s] and they came on board as our U.K. broadcaster. France Télévisions followed; they will take the first window in France. This project was a case of us listening to the market and recognizing that there is a strong appetite for more detective series.”

The other key models at all3media, Driscoll adds, are the traditional deficit-funding deals, such as Blinded (Fartblinda), a C More and TV4 commission; and U.S. co-pros and presales like The Light (working title) with Channel 4 and Hulu. “We’re looking at other ways of doing things as well,” Driscoll says. “We’re talking about having established partnerships with two or three regular customers and looking at what we can commission together. You must be flexible.”

The key to making any financing strategy work, BBC Studios’ Linsey explains, lies in “starting with the creativity and working out what the other audiences would be interested in and where the synergy is and how we can piece together a deal to get it into production.”

On the heels of the success of The Rook, Lionsgate is exploring ways of co-developing projects internationally, Kapouranis says. “Our partnership with Liberty Global on The Rook for Starz is an example of how we leverage our international partnerships to create content that can travel the world. We’ve also partnered with BBC to develop content for the U.S. market based on their intellectual property.”

Burcksen at ZDF Enterprises says there are three primary models used by the commercial arm of the German pubcaster. “We tend to be flexible in the way we assess opportunities and try to be opportunistic in a strategic way—we’d rather take a percentage of something than 100 percent of nothing. The most classical financing instrument remains the minimum guarantee for projects we enter very late in the game to fill a gap in the budget. This is still a viable way to source content, even though the market is getting tougher for these types of collaborations. We prefer to enter projects at earlier stages. We can help find additional commissioning partners in order to reduce the amount of the recoupable minimum guarantee and create a scenario where projects break even faster and risk is shared more evenly among the partners. The last model is alternative funding, which is us coming in and helping to optimize the production structure of the project by finding the best places and partners.”

Partnerships, however, are not easy. “The biggest challenge is to manage expectations between the partners and clearly define the roles and define who gets to make the decisions,” Burcksen says. “We look for co-production partners in countries with similar backgrounds to create this shared vision. We always start discussing the financing strategies very early before we dive into the depths of narrative storytelling and production details. This helps us to avoid problems later on.”

Windowing strategies also need to be in place early on. “Windowing is an essential part of each title’s global strategy—especially when local dubbing is required,” says STUDIOCANAL’s Guyonnet. “When we get involved financially, we look at the overall sales cycle of each title [and monetize] all rights included in our distribution mandate. Even though the requests from global platforms and local pay-TV platforms are becoming more restrictive, we ensure every set of rights and holdbacks are monetized.”

“It always comes down to how we think we can maximize the revenues for each project and what is best for that project in terms of reaching the biggest audience,” says Stewart at Banijay. “For Rebellion, a big Irish production commissioned by RTÉ, we did a worldwide Netflix deal. On Versailles, we could have done a big global deal, but we decided to take a more territory-by-territory approach. That worked well for that particular show. We did a lot better commercially by taking that approach and selling to individual territories than we would have if we had done a global deal. Likewise, windowing in those scenarios is crucial. We did first and second windows in a lot of territories, including the U.K. There is no set strategy per title. It depends on what the best approach is for that series.”

Driscoll at all3media adds, “It starts with the project and who the most likely customers are for that project. When you have a show like Van der Valk, you go to those clients who have traditionally bought your detective procedural shows and talk to them first. A show like Blinded (Fartblinda), commissioned by a linear network and a VOD platform, is designed for a box-set audience as well as a commercial broadcaster. This gives you a bit more flexibility and you can go and talk to both types of customers about the show and build a strategy based on that. Broadcasters and customers do tend to look at who commissioned the show. Who is it designed for? What is their audience? Do they have similar sensibilities?”

As peak TV gets peakier, one of the biggest challenges for drama producers is accessing talent. Even companies like BBC Studios are looking to develop the next generation of drama creatives. “Top writers are hugely in demand,” Linsey says. “We’re building up very important relationships with a lot of emerging writers. We’re trying to develop those relationships at an earlier stage. And trying to invest in their creativity and give them backing and support. We just announced our Writers’ Academy and that’s about identifying talent of the future at an early stage.”

Stewart notes that Banijay is looking to ramp up its scripted business in several global markets. “We’ve set up four JV companies in the U.K. and we’re looking to expand on that presence. We have a big production footprint in 16 territories, but in the U.K. it’s been [smaller] than in Scandinavia. So we’ve been looking at all different types of relationships. Recently we announced first-look deals with Greenacre and Clearwood Films. We have more coming. We’re also looking for larger investments in terms of equity stakes. There’s no one set deal we’re looking for. We’re very open to conversations with producers and trying to tailor the deal that works best for them. The door is open.”

All eyes will also be on how the launch of a wave of new SVOD players will change the drama market. “We are very curious to see how all these platforms will coexist together, but we can already anticipate they will come with a great appetite for premium, high-end content to allow them to compete with their competitors,” says STUDIOCANAL’s Guyonnet.

“Also, the fact that U.S. studios are launching their own platforms and keeping their own productions in-house will be a huge opportunity for European distributors,” she adds. “There will be fewer output-deal obligations coming from the U.S.—opening up slots in local markets for premium European series. The more platforms looking for original content, the more opportunities we will have to produce going forward.”