Say It Again

Interest in scripted remakes is picking up pace as producers and distributors look for much-needed shortcuts to get fresh, compelling content onto screens. 

Between rigorous testing and other new on-set processes, booked up studio space and creatives’ packed schedules, the global drama business has faced a cavalcade of delays since the start of the pandemic. But audience interest is as high as it’s ever been. Against that backdrop, scripted formats and reboots have emerged as a smart, efficient way to get new content to viewers while saving on development costs—and at the same time having the peace of mind that the property you’re remaking worked for audiences elsewhere.

“We have seen a huge growth in interest for scripted formats over the past five years and, even more so in the past 18 months, as broadcasters have seen the benefit of reduced development times on stories that are already proven successes,” says André Renaud, senior VP of global format sales at BBC Studios. Renaud cites the breadth of the BBC Studios scripted-format slate, having sealed remake deals on a broad range of shows, from the dramas Doctor Foster, Undercover, Mistresses, Criminal Justice and The Split to the megahit comedy The Office, mainly in Asia but also in EMEA markets such as France, Russia and Turkey. “Local writers and producers have the flexibility to tell the character’s story in a way that resonates with audiences,” Renaud notes.

“A lot of countries that haven’t traditionally done scripted formats are now more interested in them,” observes Kelly Wright, the senior VP of distribution and new business at Keshet International, which has seen recent traction around its romantic comedy The Baker and the Beauty, while False Flag is being redone in the U.S. for Apple and in India.

“In Poland, there has been a surge in the quality of drama production,” Wright continues. “Given the coronavirus restrictions that have been pretty severe in the country, I’m seeing more interest in scripted formats. And then you have some markets like the U.S. and India, which have always been scripted-format friendly and continue to be. There’s an overall positive trend.”

Jane Sharp, formats executive at All3Media International, says the company has seen demand for scripted formats grow across all of its sales regions, “both before and during the pandemic.” Liar, in particular, has been a scripted-format hit for the company, Sharp reports. “While historically it was volume that was a key driver in a potential deal, we have noticed a big shift to limited series proving very appealing. Equally, we are seeing an increase in the number of broadcasters approaching us to option and license, rather than third-party producers. People are keen to secure the rights for strong stories, even if the cultural nuances are different to their regular dramas.”

And having a better chance of a hit in the risky business of high-end drama certainly helps. “While there is no guarantee of a hit show, arguably you stack the odds in reproducing a show that has worked to critical acclaim in another territory,” Sharp adds. “And that, of course, really reduces preproduction and development time—so you can get to screen quicker, and therefore cheaper.”

BBC Studios’ Renaud observes that the uncertainty brought about by the pandemic has left audiences clamoring for familiarity, “so instant recognition of a name or story can be useful to drive viewership.”

“With the rise of streamers, both local and global, the competition in creating good drama stories that can attract viewers is getting fierce,” adds Sayako Aoki, who handles scripted format sales at Nippon TV. The Japanese media giant inked remake deals on its Mother format in Turkey, South Korea, Ukraine, France, Thailand, China, Indonesia and Spain. “Drama remakes can provide a strong structure and guidance in what has already gained success in other territories, as well as visual examples of how the series is going to turn out, and the data on how well that IP is performing,” Aoki adds. “All of this is helpful for buyers when exploring the next big hits.”

But even if you do already have a hit on your hands, translating it for a new territory, taking into account cultural nuances, is no easy feat. Starting with a track record helps, says Nadav Palti, president and CEO of Dori Media Group, but other factors can help guarantee a successful remake.

“Times change and create new situations where a certain format is suddenly more relevant,” Palti explains. “For example, Lalola today is more relevant than it was in 2007-08 when we produced it because of the #MeToo movement, and therefore is of huge interest today.”

Dori Media boasts several other successful scripted formats in its catalog, including Split, Ciega a Citas, In Treatment—remade in 18 territories—and Dumb, which has been sold for remakes in France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Spain. Little Mom is in production for Channel 4 in the U.K. as Hullraisers.

GMA Network in the Philippines has remade several Korean drama series into local hits that the group has then sold internationally, including Descendants of the Sun. “We only acquire remakes that we can tailor to our viewer’s tastes and preferences,” says Roxanne J. Barcelona, VP of GMA’s worldwide division, which handles content sales, syndication and distribution. “Dramas whose concepts are relevant and our viewers can relate to socially and culturally are very important in reboots and remakes. Sometimes we tweak a story or a character to ensure proper engagement with the target demographics as opposed to alienating them.”

At Series Mania this year, Cineflix Rights launched Rebecca, the first adaptation of the critically acclaimed Marcella. For Tom Misselbrook, senior VP of scripted sales and development, getting a remake right comes down to the “delicate balance of keeping close to the original—because that is ultimately what contains the successful formula—but in the process creating a distinction between the two, something that feels unique and that will resonate with local audiences within the market it’s being produced. It comes down to the writing and the execution of a remake. With Rebecca, our production partner Elephant has cleverly woven Marcella’s personal journey across the first two seasons into the first season of the remake, which makes for a very emotive, intense and thrilling drama. They’ve also explored Rebecca’s role as a woman and a mother in her professional and personal life in greater depth, which adds another layer to our central character and makes it more relevant for today’s audiences.”

Renaud says you have to start with a great idea and authentic characters. “At BBC Studios, each of our scripted formats has bold and relatable characters at the heart that can comfortably sit in a brand-new set of surroundings. Their stories are both specific and universal: a serious crimes officer trying not to be consumed by the dark crimes he investigates or even the day-to-day goings-on of people in an office environment. It is essential for us that the adaptation process is a collaborative one. We have a dual responsibility to do justice to the original creative work and be sensitive to making an adaptation that remains true to the original. We work closely with our partners to translate stories in a way that will best resonate in their own country.”

“It depends a lot on the experience of the producers you’re working with,” agrees Wright at Keshet International. “Experienced writers and producers can see a piece of IP and immediately form a vision for it based on their own cultural experience, where they come from and the zeitgeist of where that place is at that point in time. That’s the kind of experience we had with Peter Bowker on The A Word for the BBC and with Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa on Homeland. It was an immediate click where they said, OK, we get your show, we see exactly where this needs to go and we’re running with it. The job of the distribution company is not to interfere too much. On the opposite side of that, you have people who have never done this before. When they try to put too many twists on something that already works as it is, and they don’t have the experience of doing so, that’s when we see projects not succeed the way they wanted them to. And in some places, including the U.S., where they’ve stayed faithful but tried to be too inventive with the material without having that clear, completely separate storyline and vision, they’ve fallen. It’s a tricky line to cross. There has to be creative respect on either side.”

Once you have a well-executed remake on your hands, your IP becomes even more valuable given the surging interest in foreign-language drama across the globe. Cineflix Rights already fared well with Marcella and hopes Rebecca will be equally viable on the global circuit. Misselbrook says the company looks to retain the rights to any adaptations of its scripted formats “so that we can control the brand and ensure that any remake is produced, marketed and sold effectively while taking into consideration sales of the original series. Commercially, it makes a lot of sense to do that, as it creates an additional stream of revenue for the business while adding volume to our catalog. When analyzing a particular scripted series for acquisition, we look at the potential for a remake, which forms an important factor in our decision-making process. A good example of this is Manayek, our hard-hitting Israeli cop drama from Yoav Gross Productions. We could instantly tell the strength of the original and bought into that, but also felt that it had all the ingredients to be adapted elsewhere. We’re having some interesting conversations around that currently.”

Keshet International, similarly, looks to hold onto the distribution rights to remakes. That approach is more straightforward in some territories than others, Wright observes. “In the U.S., it’s been challenging. We’ve been lucky with our deal with NBC because we’ve split distribution on most of the shows that we produce for NBC and Universal Television. In cases where the country or the buyer isn’t fully equipped to do distribution, we step in and take on that role. Sometimes these companies want to grow their distribution, and that’s something they will fight hard for, but they won’t necessarily be willing to pay more for it, for example, with an MG or a higher fee. When you take on distribution, you have more expenses, but you also stand to gain. So, it is on a case-by-case basis.”

It’s also on a project-by-project basis at Dori Media, Palti observes. “We aim to distribute the remake, but when the agreement doesn’t allow it, we still receive a percentage of the remake’s sales.”

At BBC Studios, Renaud says those decisions about rights retention for remakes include “balancing the needs of the commissioning broadcaster in any region with the desire to have as many people as possible around the world see the great quality of production that countries bring to life. That is often the fine line everyone treads. As audiences become more comfortable seeing shows from around the world, we work closely with all of our partners to find the best way to navigate this together.”

For GMA Network, the approach has generally been to only take on distribution rights to its own remakes of scripted formats it has licensed from third parties. “The challenge is when we have limited distribution rights to some of our remakes,” says Barcelona. “Although this is not the norm but rather the exception, it does pose challenges in some cases. This limits the amount of content that can be offered to regular clients. But on the other hand, it opens an opportunity for a deeper and longer cooperation between the format owner and the licensee and its distributor. We trust that format owners will promote and market our adaptations and distribute them to a wider audience. If the adaptation is promoted alongside the original, it may also strengthen the marketability of the remake, and in the long run, promote Filipino dramas in general.”

The other complication in the scripted-formats market is the commissioning model at the global streamers, which will sometimes call for exclusivity. “On When Heroes Fly, we sold the tape to Netflix, and Apple saw it and said, We love it and we can see this being remade with American ex-soldiers in Colombia,” says Wright at Keshet International. “But when it comes to partners like Apple, you have a lot of incentive to be exclusive to them. We’ve had people come to us wanting to make When Heroes Fly and we haven’t agreed to that because we’re committed [to Apple’s version]. The one remake is going to be Apple’s. Sometimes there is no conflict of interest. Often, buyers won’t mind if that IP exists, even on a platform as popular as Netflix. Countries like Germany are a bit warier of foreign-language versions entering the territory, especially if they will be dubbed in German.”

There are both challenges and opportunities in selling multiple versions of the same series, Dori Media’s Palti observes. “The opportunity is the better and larger offer to clients, in different languages and with a different number of episodes. The challenge is managing sales worldwide without infringing on granted rights.”

Cineflix’s Misselbrook adds, “One of the biggest challenges we’re seeing is to be able to make a clear distinction between the original series and the remake in a way that local audiences respond to the new version. There are always obvious comparisons to make between the original and remake. If the original is very much associated with a particular platform or channel, then the challenge is to make a remake feel new and fresh.”

Ultimately, though, the business is filled with upsides, BBC Studios’ Renaud explains. “One of the most rewarding things in format distribution is to see how a story can be told and retold with different nuances every time. Not only does it give insight into a culture or a community, but it also often can shed new light on the stories themselves and give viewers the chance to rethink or rediscover a part of the story they may have missed before. Making this happen must be explored in a way that gives everyone the space to allow their own version to shine, too, and it’s why we always want to spend time with our partners to talk through how their own unique version stands next to the other versions around the world.”

Nippon TV’s Aoki agrees, noting, “To have multiple versions based on the same IP produced, aired and distributed could be tricky when adjusting the terms like languages or holdbacks, but I feel it is more of a good influence in making the IP grow globally. As a content provider, we keep trying to provide relatable stories and innovative viewing experiences to viewers all over the world. The synergy we can see in different versions in terms of marketing and viewers’ engagement is contributing to our new business opportunities.”