So Much Drama!


Leading distributors share their strategies for delivering projects that will stand out in a crowded drama landscape.

Has peak TV peaked? Not yet, apparently. In the U.S. alone last year, the number of scripted originals hit 495, up from 487 the year before, according to research from FX Networks (whose CEO, John Landgraf, coined the term “peak TV” way back in 2015, a year that only had 409 scripted series). Estimates are that the number will hit about 520 this year, and that doesn’t include the prolific output out of Europe, Latin America, Asia and Africa.

So what does it take to stand out amid all of that content? On that front, there are no easy answers. Crime still pays, but so do romance and sci-fi, family drama and psychological thrills, contemporary and period, limited and returning, in English and multiple other languages.

“The good thing about working in the scripted area at the moment is that channels are very open to many different genres of series and are not prescriptive,” reports Caroline Torrance, the head of scripted at Banijay Rights.

“The main shift in my focus over the past few months has been a move away from trying to chase specific genres, stories and formats to ensuring instead that we approach our development and production slate in a very comprehensive, balanced manner,” notes Carlo Dusi, the executive VP of commercial strategy for scripted at Red Arrow Studios International. “We’ve always found that developing and producing in response to current trends can be quite a tricky process. Often, by the time you’ve reacted to a trend you saw in the marketplace, that trend has evolved, or the need has been filled and the opportunity is gone. We remain much keener to continue to keep as mixed and varied a balance within our slate as we can.”

For Vanessa Shapiro, the president of worldwide TV distribution and co-production at Gaumont, “discovering the gaps [in the market] and doing the hard work of filling them with compelling stories that will resonate with viewers around the world is the exciting part of our business.”

Despite never-ending shifts in trends, there is one constant: broadcasters and platforms want strong original concepts with great talent attached, Shapiro notes. “As showrunner for Narcos, Eric Newman has continued to enthrall audiences all over the world with the stories of the real-life rise to global power and wealth of the world’s most infamous drug lords. And we’re equally excited to have Pablo and Juan de Dios Larraín on board for El Presidente.”

Both projects Shapiro mentions are international in nature—Narcos explores the drug trade between Colombia, Mexico and the U.S., while the new Amazon commission El Presidente, from Gaumont and Fabula, the company founded by Pablo and Juan de Dios Larraín, is inspired by the 2015 “FIFA Gate” corruption scandal.

She adds that “local-language productions are hot right now,” with Narcos helping to kick off the surging demand in non-English-language dramas. The Gaumont slate also includes its first German production, The Barbarians, for Netflix. “Over the past 18 months, we have reviewed multiple high-end dramas, comedies and crime series, and we anticipate announcing at least three new productions for 2019 in Latin America, Canada and Germany,” Shapiro says.

At STUDIOCANAL, the emphasis is on “European programming with global appeal,” says Françoise Guyonnet, executive managing director of TV series. “Now that viewers are more open to content that transcends borders, effective international co-productions need to have the ability to travel and to deliver original, globally relevant storylines, compelling characters and unique settings. Multinational platforms have led the way with globally produced content, giving a home to non-English-language shows. As a creator and supplier who works closely with broadcast and OTT partners, it is our responsibility to better understand their programming needs, their positioning needs and, ultimately, their audience’s needs.”

One need that Guyonnet has heard from broadcasters and platforms is for shows with strong female leads, such as STUDIOCANAL’s own Years and Years, from Russell T Davies and starring Emma Thompson for BBC One; and Spiral, the Canal+ original series that is in its seventh season with star Caroline Proust.

“The trend of theatrical talent moving to the small screen also continues,” Guyonnet adds. “Romain Duris, a French household name, stars in Vernon Subutex, while we have U.S. actor Matthew Modine, well known for his role in Full Metal Jacket, playing Dr. Fisher in Sanctuary.”

The internationalization of the drama business has created opportunities for distributors to work with talent outside of traditional scripted powerhouses like the U.S. and U.K.

“Audiences worldwide are much more open to local content and are increasingly keen on local stories exhibiting real specificity, and offering genuine insight into realities different from those of the viewers,” says Red Arrow’s Dusi. “That’s given us a huge amount of potential to work with talent from outside the traditional English-speaking territories and capitalize on our international relationships in a much more creative way.”

Of note, Red Arrow arrives at MIPTV with a slate that includes The Girl from St. Agnes, a series from South African platform Showmax, alongside Endor Productions’ period piece Vienna Blood for ZDF and ORF and the conspiracy thriller Departure, starring Archie Panjabi and Christopher Plummer.

STUDIOCANAL boasts a roster that includes a Francophone African series, the ten-part Invisibles, produced as a Canal+ original; and a new Spanish drama, Instinto, produced by Bambú Producciones for Movistar+.

Banijay Rights, meanwhile, has on its slate the first-ever New Zealand/Danish co-production. “It is really important to have pieces that feel authentic,” stresses Torrance. “Our multi­national drama Straight Forward is a great example. Our creative colleagues from Banijay Group companies Screentime and Mastiff gave us the confidence to commit to such a complex project. This compelling story delivers an unusual blend of New Zealand and Scandinavian narrative.”

Torrance is also excited to be showcasing Banijay’s first Spanish series, Hierro, produced by Portocabo and Atlantique Productions for Movistar+ and ARTE France; and the Norwegian series Wisting, commissioned by Viaplay, TV3 and ARD and starring American actress Carrie-Anne Moss.

For Red Arrow’s Dusi, another significant development in the drama business is “greater flexibility in terms of episode number, episode lengths and generally how broadcasters approach the formatting of shows. We feel that we can now put forward shows in the format that most suits the content creatively and best supports the storytelling, rather than having to shoehorn particular stories into a set number of episodes or a pre-determined episode length. This change has been feeling very liberating for us and the talent we work with.”

Guyonnet at STUDIOCANAL cites Collapse, an eight-part series consisting of 15-minute episodes, as an innovative way of approaching scripted storytelling, noting that the show was shot in just one take. “We are always open to new ideas and are not afraid to push the boundaries to try something in a different way or in a new territory.”

With broadcasters and platforms having so many ideas to choose from, finessing projects during the development stage has become more crucial than ever.

“We’re making sure that we develop relationships with producers who are tried and tested and have a track record and the kind of industry reputation that will make buyers feel confident about the quality of the end result,” Dusi says. “All of these factors are essential to give a project the best chance to stand out in the current marketplace. And we’ve all had to become a lot more strategic about how we take our content out once we’ve packaged it. There are so many projects being circulated at any point in time. You only get one bite of the cherry with each potential buyer or partner, so if you don’t present a project in the best possible way and at the right time, you run the risk of burning bridges that you won’t be able to reopen afterward. So we spend a lot of time thinking carefully with our producing partners about the order and timing in which we take projects out to make sure we do it in the most intelligent way possible. We’re also constantly researching the market to verify what we might be in competition with and what needs we may be able to meet with a particular project.”

It’s a similar story at Gaumont, Shapiro notes. “We are spending more time, money and energy on series development,” she explains. “There’s no cheap way to create high-end drama. Ideally, we try to have at least one to two scripts written before we take a project to the market, plus a bible with character descriptions and series arc.”

Banijay’s Torrance concurs that it’s paramount to spend time perfecting properties. “Big event pieces take a while to put together because a lineup of partners is needed to finance each series and it is important for everyone to buy into the creative vision. This of course takes time, but is vital for the success of a drama.”

If a lot of time is spent in development but the project doesn’t come to fruition, all is not lost, Dusi says. “We’re finding that even when a development does not ultimately move all the way to production, other good things will come from the work we put in, whether it’s another project with the same creative team or an introduction to a new creative relationship. In such a busy, fast-moving market, everyone values the ability to work with partners that they know and trust and where they can feel that their interests are aligned. We are in the process of building what we hope will be a wide international family of trusted relationships across which we can work on multiple projects in a way that will benefit both us and the content creators, as well as the buyers working with us.”

Guyonnet reports that STUDIOCANAL benefits from being part of the broader Canal+ Group, allowing the division to “work closely with our production company partners to help hone effective strategies for their shows as well as giving them time to develop dramas with leading writers and talent. It is the fact that we are part of a larger group that allows us to work in this way. Every show is different and demands a different strategy. It’s a very complicated environment, which needs careful handling and experience, and we are delighted to be able to share this way of working with our production partners when we invest in them.”

But even the large federations are looking outside of their own production-company networks as the global talent race heats up. “We’ve already developed material with producers in CEE and Latin America and are constantly looking at filmmakers and writers coming to us from new territories,” Dusi notes. “We have a strong relationship already with Israel, for instance, where we own a production company, July-August, but we also announced a label deal with two phenomenally talented Israeli writers, Amit Cohen and Ron Leshem, at the end of last year, which is already starting to yield very exciting fruit for us. As a general rule, we are very international in our approach, and global in the way that we look at the talent pool.”

Torrance, too, says the team at Banijay Rights is casting a wide net. “We are always looking for new series and new partners, no matter where they are from. We attend all the festivals and screenings such as Göteborg, Berlin and Series Mania to keep our eyes out for original ideas. We encourage producers to come and talk to us at an early stage and use our expertise in distribution to help them get their series out to the widest possible audience.”

Sourcing book IP has been a critical method for STUDIOCANAL in finding stand-out concepts, Guyonnet reports. “We’ve been working on several literary adaptations, which is a wonderful way of discovering new ideas and stories. Vernon Subutex, Sanctuary and the forthcoming War of the Worlds are great examples of how literature often provides content that translates successfully to screen. It was announced very recently that our owner Vivendi has partnered with prestige publishing house Editis, which we believe will be a real source of opportunity for us all at STUDIOCANAL.”

For Gaumont’s Shapiro, there still are “some real gems to be discovered. The real difficulty is finding projects that stand out from the rest of the series already available—stories that have not yet been told with a new creative direction.”

And the race to secure access to those stories shows no signs of slowing down.