Prime Crime

Mansha Daswani checks in with a range of distributors about what’s new in the always popular crime-drama genre.

War in Europe. Lingering Covid-19 restrictions. Inflation. After a rocky start to 2022—following two years of pandemic-induced stress and upheaval—audiences are still in the mood for a little bit of uplift; and seem to be looking for it in a television staple: crime dramas.

“They are looking for empowered female lead characters and diverse casts, positive and uplifting resolutions, regular people mixed up in investigations, unusual locations and communities and authentic and grounded stories that are easily digestible,” observes Robert Franke, the VP of drama at ZDF Studios.

Julia Weber, the head of international sales and acquisitions at Global Screen, is of a similar view, noting, “Audiences around the world are looking for innovative approaches to crime stories with new ways of creating the genre rather than the norm,” she says, pointing to the new Global Screen launch Recipes for Love and Murder. The ten-part series is a South African and U.K. co-production starring Maria Doyle Kennedy, based on the best-selling novel by Sally Andrew.

“It is a unique and escapist premium drama—‘crime light,’ in fact,” Weber explains. “The combination of the stunning South African scenery and the warmth of the diverse range of characters makes for a wholly different viewing experience.”

Kit Yow, VP of sales for the Asia Pacific at All3Media International, is of the perspective that “audiences thrive on all elements of the crime genre, whether it’s the ‘whodunit’ or ‘whydunit’—the interesting plot twists, charismatic characters or unexpected revelations. There is also now more of a desire for high production values across the genre.”

Yow also has seen continued interest in true-crime stories, referencing All3Media International’s new launch, Story Films’ The Thief, His Wife and the Canoe, from acclaimed writer Chris Lang, which tells the story of fraudster couple John and Anne Darwin.

“With the rise of streamers, both local and global, the competition in creating good drama stories that can attract viewers is getting fierce,” reports Sayako Aoki, head of formats, international business development, at Japan’s Nippon TV. “The essence of developing a good crime drama is to create a relatable story accompanied by strong visuals that quickly capture the audience’s attention. Although never-before-seen stories are always welcome, how they can resonate with viewers’ hearts would be more important. From our experience, producers’ enthusiasm and persistence in finding a perfect way to tell the story they believe in is also a key ingredient to a successful project.”

Jimmy George, the VP of sales and acquisitions at GoQuest Media, says that whatever the style of a crime drama, “fresh stories” are essential. Audiences, he says, “seek new in-depth worlds in crime that are set apart from what’s been explored before. The success of non-English-language crime dramas like Dark and Money Heist just goes to show that while audiences will always be fascinated with the genre, they are seeking novelty in characters and settings.

“Finding novel ways of entertaining the audience in the same genre is the toughest ploy today,” George continues. “However, strong anti-heroes and the audiences they garner are helping break the mold to a great extent. A non-altruistic, charismatic character with a single-minded devotion to their goal has broad appeal and stickiness with the audience.”

One method producers use to deliver that “stickiness” is fusing genres. “Hybrid storytelling with a mix of genres to make the crime genre more interesting is a technique we see writers deploy nowadays,” George notes.

“Hybrid storytelling is constantly present and transformed,” observes ZDF Studios’ Franke. “From the butterfly effect narrative of Chain Reaction around the investigation of one robbery gone wrong to the contemporary adaptation and mix of Scandi noir and light whodunit of Agatha Christie’s Hjerson to the Spanish film anthology [Stories to Stay Awake] mixing crime, thriller, horror, sci-fi and the absurd.”

Franke adds that “blue-sky appeal” and exploring untapped or unusual locations are consistent trends in crime drama.

“A hybrid storyline can attract as wide an audience as possible,” reports Global Screen’s Weber. Recipes for Love and Murder, for instance, “looks at crime detection with the additional pull of delicious food and beautiful landscapes along with humor and a gentle, non-violent approach.”

Weber adds, “While the storylines refer to difficult acts such as murder and domestic violence, they are dealt with in a considered and non-gratuitous way. And, as the title suggests, there are lots of opportunities to talk about food and its healing properties!”

Carlos Hertel, director of international sales at Bavaria Media International, mentions the eight-part Dark Lake, produced by Québec’s Pixcom for Club illico in Canada, calling it “thrilling entertainment for younger audiences, combining the elements of horror and mystery.”

The company is also touting the Icelandic title Manners (available as a movie or a two-parter). “It is based on a true story and is a contribution to the #MeToo debate, but this time focusing on the view and experience of the alleged offender and his family,” Hertel says.

For Yow at All3Media International, a critical development in crime dramas has been the genre becoming more inclusive and diverse. She mentions Drama Republic’s new series The Confessions of Frannie Langton, “which is in part a murder mystery but also a period romance that explores themes of race, gender, oppression and sexuality.”

She also points to the appeal of “genre-bending” shows like the true-crime-based Deceit, which “shifted the traditional narrative to focus on the experience of the female detective investigating the crime, presenting an innovative female lens on this genre.” Meanwhile, Black Camel Pictures’ Annika, starring Nicola Walker, “breaks the fourth wall [as she] solves crimes through her unique literary knowledge and sharp wit.”

With the changes in viewing habits brought about by the pandemic, “hybrid storytelling has become a major part of our creative development process, given the unpredictable nature of the world we live in now,” notes Nippon TV’s Aoki. “With each new project, it is our goal to create stories that are both out-of-the-box and easily adaptable.”

Nippon TV has emerged as a significant provider of scripted formats, so Aoki and her team are already exploring adaptation opportunities for CONNECTED, a co-production with Envision Entertainment in the U.K. inspired by the Japanese media giant’s Double Booking about a group of armchair detectives.

“CONNECTED is a great example of a cross-border co-production,” says Aoki. “This series was designed to expand to localized versions featuring diverse characters from different countries, while all belonging to the same shared online universe. We created this crime drama with the intention that the mystery would spread over international borders. It is our ultimate goal to create quality content that transcends across multiple territories.”

While shows involving storylines and characters from more than one territory are emerging, ZDF Studios’ Franke observes that crime dramas today are still mainly “grounded in local cultures and societies. But we do come across authentic cross-border co-productions from time to time. We appreciate when unusual countries or contrasting cultures co-produce, as the effect is often spectacular. There is a lot of room to play when it comes to mixing locations, genres, tones and styles, as long as the final proposition is convincing and authentic.”

At Global Screen, too, Weber reports that the crime-drama slate is predominantly made up of local stories. “We are currently expanding into the co-production arena and are very interested in productions that cross borders,” she says. “Recipes for Love and Murder is a blueprint for us, as it is an innovative program that is local but also translates very well for global audiences.”

The series is a co-production of M-Net, AMC Networks’ Acorn TV and Both Worlds Pictures, together with Global Screen. Thierry Cassuto of Both Worlds Pictures is producing the series in collaboration with Scotland-based Pirate Productions, with development support provided by Creative Scotland and Paris-based Paradoxal.

The Mediapro Studio Distribution is highlighting the second season of the murder mystery The Head, which boasts a multinational cast and counted HBO Asia and Hulu Japan as co-production partners on season one. That first season sold into 90 markets, according to Marta Ezpeleta, the director of distribution, co-productions, acquisitions and international offices at The Mediapro Studio. The show, she adds, “gives an idea about the internationalization of the studio’s productions and our reach as distributors.”

Recipes for Love and Murder revolves around its lead character’s investigation into a single murder mystery, in line with the broader shift in crime drama to serialized storytelling.

“While procedurals will always have a dedicated audience, serialized stories meet the triple criteria of novelty, appealing characters and unique settings more frequently, helping us reach a wider audience,” Weber reports.

“Most of the players, especially streamers, seem to be focusing more on serialized storytelling that can induce binge-watching episode after episode,” says Aoki at Nippon TV, citing the broadcaster’s own Guilty Flag, which tackles “one giant mystery, with dramatic twists and turns through 20 episodes. It’s been successfully creating enthusiastic fan groups online that ‘investigate’ the mystery themselves. However, I see the demand for procedurals is also still there, as some stories, especially those with strong, lovable characters, can reach and entertain viewers more in procedurals. If we can provide a satisfactory viewing experience in the first episode, viewers would come back for the next episodes, as they know they can get catharsis in every episode of this form of storytelling.”

ZDF Studios’ Franke has seen an increased demand for straight-ahead procedurals in the last two years, calling it a “solid comeback trend,” but adds: “We would say there is no competition between the two genres—the allocated slots are different, so both are equally in demand.”

All3Media’s Yow is of a similar opinion, adding, “Both genres still have their fan bases, and the demand more depends on the type of platforms in different territories. We are proud to offer a brilliant range of crime dramas, from the procedural cases in Dalgliesh and Annika to serialized character-driven crime stories such as The Thief, His Wife and the Canoe and Deceit. The distinction between serialized and procedural is largely led by the duration and series commitment set by the commissioning broadcaster. Still, whether the series is procedural or serialized, there is always demand for high-quality drama with strong characters you want to spend time with and a compelling plot that makes the drama entertaining to watch.”