Seeing Double

FURY-the-wind-of-hopeA range of distributors tell Mansha Daswani about the new opportunities in the booming scripted-formats business.

Barely a week goes by in the U.S. without there being news of some American entity optioning, piloting or ordering to series a show based on a hit drama from abroad. Of note, USA Network is prepping a version of the Norwegian thriller Eyewitness. AMC (home to Humans, a remake of the Scandi hit Real Humans), is working on Broke, inspired by the Danish series Bankerot. NBC is soon launching Game of Silence, marking the first time a Turkish scripted series (Global Agency’s Suskunlar) has been formatted in the U.S.

To be sure, this is not a new development—American platforms have long been remaking successful series from foreign shores (way back in 1977, the U.K.’s Man About the House inspired Three’s Company). There have been many hits since then and a fair share of misses. But the recent increased activity in North America corresponds with a boom in the scripted-formats genre across the globe. And not coincidentally, it comes at the same time as the drama business in general is reaching new highs worldwide.

“At the moment on the international market and in local territories, writing talent is gold dust,” observes Sarah Doole, the director of global drama at FremantleMedia. “The best writing talent is a rare commodity in television at the moment. You may be in a territory where actually you haven’t got that much homegrown writing talent, or you may be in a territory where you just can’t get to the writing talent because they are so busy.”

Taking an existing script and customizing it for your territory “fast-tracks your development process,” Doole notes. “It means you can probably have a show on air in six months as opposed to three years!”

At Keshet International, Keren Shahar, managing director of distribution, says that a look at the company’s year-end results for 2015 show a distinct increase in revenues from scripted formats.

“Adapting a drama format gives you essentially the same advantages as a non-scripted format: it saves you development time and development spend,” she notes. “You have the characters figured out, you have the scripts, you know how the series is going to look, so your time to market is much [shorter].”

Nicola Söderlund, managing partner at Eccho Rights, says the company has done 12 licenses and 8 options on its scripted formats over the last 24 months. “Drama has boomed over the last year,” Söderlund says. “To develop a well-crafted script takes a long time. The production community simply does not have enough time to do that. It’s so much easier to start with a series that works well—where the top-line development is done well and character development is done well. You save a lot of time and effort on that. Also, the most difficult thing for a writer is to find an original premise, something that makes a great story.”

Outside of saving on development time, formats can also give broadcasters peace of mind in this ultra-competitive scripted market.

“You can say to the broadcaster: this worked really well in England or Australia or Germany or wherever,” Doole says. “That de-risks it slightly for your local broadcaster.”

Twentieth Century Fox Television Distribution is capitalizing on the global success of its U.S. drama and comedy brands, among them Modern Family, Prison Break and How I Met Your Mother, to drive its scripted-format business. Those shows, says Erika Saito, VP of sales, “have a lot of scripts, there’s a lot of worldwide [awareness about] them, universal themes are at the heart of them, and local production companies and broadcasters are very familiar with the brands. They can envision the benefits of having a local version on their channels.”

Adaptations that have done well for Fox include 24, heading into a second season in India with Bollywood star Anil Kapoor taking on the role made famous by Kiefer Sutherland, and The Oaks, versioned in France as Le secret d’Elise for TF1.

Manuela Caputi, the head of international sales for the Mediaset catalogue at Mediaset Distribution, references the format success of series that have done well in Italy on Canale 5 in prime time. “We have a track record in terms of share and good ratings and all these elements are very important for the international market, which is very competitive,” Caputi states, highlighting shows like Fury, The Wind of Hope.

Drivers of her format strategy include A Matter of Respect, which has been a hit for Kanal D in Turkey, and Tuscan Passion, also adapted by Kanal D and recently acquired by Televisa for Mexico.

Of course, not every drama or comedy has format potential. “People think, I have a script so I have a format,” observes Alex Lagomarsino, CEO and partner at MediaBiz, which represents writers, directors and producers across Latin America. “No, no, no! One thing is to have a script; another thing is to have a format. A format is something you can duplicate. It’s something where you can change the actors, but the topics are universal.”

“The kind of formats that have that potential in scripted are few and far between,” adds Arabelle Pouliot-Di Crescenzo, the managing director of KABO International, which is repping the output of French production outfit KABO Family as well as third-party fare. “Every country has a great scripted show about a bunch of friends living in an apartment or about a family. All those things can be huge in the local market but not necessarily formattable.”

KABO International, launched in late 2014, has done well with its scripted-comedy format Our Crazy Family. Based on a show airing on M6 in France, a version is up and running in Greece, with options in Canada, Germany and Spain; deals pending in Latin America and interest from Central and Eastern Europe.

“What makes our show formattable is the way it’s structured and the quality of the scripts,” Pouliot-Di Crescenzo says. “It’s hard to find a scripted format that has that potential, but when you have it, there are no limits in terms of selling it.”

The universal principles in the Argentine romantic comedy Ciega a Citas are driving its format value at Dori Media Group, notes Revital Basel, the company’s VP of sales. Ciega a Citas has been produced in Chile, Russia, Poland, Germany, Spain and now China. “Ciega a Citas’s story revolves around the dating world, which is global and always relevant everywhere. [It’s a] modern Bridget Jones in the TV world,” states Basel.

Dori Media also did well with the In Treatment format, remade in 18 markets. Basel calls the show, which focuses on a therapist and his patients, the “most-sold Israeli scripted format ever.” On what is behind its success, she says, “It can happen in Tel Aviv, Beijing, New York, Paris or any place in the world. It’s easily adapted to any culture, religion and mentality. It’s cost-effective to produce—most of the money is spent on talent, both on screen and off. It can be watched as a daily or as a weekly show.”

While they certainly can make life easier for commissioners with local slots to fill, scripted formats come with their fair share of challenges.

“You have to work on the correct adaptation and it takes time,” says MediaBiz’s Lagomarsino. “Many people will get the script, change a name from John to Juan and believe they have [an adaptation].”

Lagomarsino has been involved in many successful reversionings, including Desperate Housewives across Latin America and the Killer Women format in a number of territories, including Italy. In the U.S. however, Killer Women, despite its high-profile credentials in front of and behind the camera, was cancelled after just one season on ABC.

“They put in [a character who was a] Texas Ranger,” Lagomarsino says. “No one had done that in the Latin American versions. They believed that was the best path. For me, the mistake they made is they didn’t understand that [maintaining] the way of telling the story and keeping the character profiles were key in all the regions [where it worked].”

For Shahar at Keshet, whose scripted-drama portfolio includes Prisoners of War, The Gordin Cell and The A Word, “The big challenge in formats is really balancing the DNA of the original creation with the local writer’s voice. That writer has been chosen because they are the best possible partner, and naturally he or she will have their own creative flair and style and they will see the concept from a different perspective. From my experience that’s probably the biggest challenge in scripted adaptations, but it’s all part of the process of making a new version feel like it is from the country it is being made for.”

Söderlund at Eccho Rights, which has had particular success formatting its Turkish dramas Ezel and The End, echoes the views expressed by Shahar. “The biggest challenge for us is finding the balance between producers making it their own story and not changing so much that it loses the basic mechanisms that make it work. The characters and how they develop in the story, the plot lines and how they work, how a scene is constructed to drive the story forward—as long as you keep those basic elements, you can make the surface different: the culture, the places, the settings. But you need to keep the basic story lines intact. If producers change too much of a format, it loses its identity.”

Determining how much leeway to give a local producer “varies from format to format, from creator to creator,” says Dori Media’s Basel. “For example, the formula of In Treatment is very strict, and local changes are [minor]. Other formats have more options for local adaptations. Ciega a Citas for example, adapted in Chile, is different from the original Argentinean format. The local production team did not want to focus on the mainstream dating world, but more on the ‘second round’ after years of not dating. The story was changed to tell the story of a woman who splits from her spouse after many years and needs to start dating all over again. The basic elements are kept, but the story is told from a different angle.”

“We understand that different cultures require local interpretation and adaptation,” Mediaset’s Caputi says, adding that “universal archetypes” in characters make the reversioning process much smoother.

With some scripted formats, the biggest hurdle is trying to figure out how to replicate a show where the original has a significant Hollywood budget. Such is the case with Fox’s Bones, which was recently adapted in Russia. “They produced it for a fraction of what the U.S. budget is,” says Saito. “The biggest challenge we have with selling Bones is the cost. International productions don’t typically have access to the same budgets we have here [in the U.S.]. We would like to see Bones up and running in more territories, but we have to figure out how to make it cost-effective for our clients.”

Discussing the challenges of adaptations, FremantleMedia’s Doole makes a distinction between remakes and reversions. In the case of a remake, “you’re taking the original premise and you’re using the original scripts,” as was done with the Australian drama Wentworth, which has been adapted in the Netherlands and Germany. “They used the original set plans, the original costume designs, the whole process of how that show was made. They learned from [Australia] and that really helped them get that show away quickly.”

The one key “snag,” as Doole refers to it, is that the Dutch production has now caught up with the Australian original in terms adapting existing scripts. “So, we have to make sure it’s carefully in sync. Holland can’t get ahead of Australia, if you see what I mean!”

Web Therapy, another FremantleMedia scripted-format highlight, falls under the “reversion” category for Doole. “You’re taking the original premise and then probably putting another writer on board, taking that concept in a different direction, changing it, reversioning it for that particular market.”

Originally made with Lisa Kudrow and broadcast on Showtime, Web Therapy has now spawned a version for Movistar Plus in Spain with Eva Hache. “It relies on a top comedienne in the main role, so it’s personalized in each territory to what that comedienne is like and her profile,” Doole says.

Comedies in general tend to be harder to adapt. “Humor is so culturally sensitive,” says Söderlund at Eccho Rights.

Keshet has established a strong track record with scripted-comedy formats, among them Traffic Light, formatted in the U.S., Russia and China; Your Family or Mine, produced in the U.S., Greece and Ukraine; and Loaded, ordered to series by Channel 4 and in the works for Televisa in Mexico.

“The issue with comedy is that when you get it wrong, you get it completely wrong—there’s less of a middle ground,” Shahar says.

Nevertheless, KABO’s Pouliot-Di Crescenzo states, “If you look at the best-selling formats in the history of television on the scripted side, you’ll see comedy in the top positions.”

Pouliot-Di Crescenzo says that KABO’s scripted-comedy format Our Crazy Family is working because of the company’s “PICK’n Mix” model. Broadcasters can select from more than 3,500 individual comedic scenes. “They’re like LEGO blocks; you can assemble them in any order. In Greece, the format is 40 minutes long; in France it’s closer to 26, 30 minutes. As the show continues in the schedule, the channel can start combining new scenes with rerun scenes, which can reduce the cost of the slot. Because every scene is only rerun maybe three or four times in the life of the show, it never feels like a rerun. Some scenes may seem familiar, but because they’re sandwiched in between brand-new scenes, the audience totally accepts it.”

KABO’s package for its clients includes all those scripts, plus a technical bible on how to make the series and detailed character descriptions. “We recommend casting scenes, so [the producers] can see if the actors they have can play the range of emotion required,” Pouliot-Di Crescenzo says. “We also provide the music and the graphics. We send a consultant and we have them visit the set in Paris, so they can see it all happen and ask questions.”

Söderlund says the key is to “transfer all the knowledge behind the format over to the producer,” in order to ensure a successful and seamless adaptation.

Fox’s Saito also notes the importance of knowing the skill sets of the production company and broadcaster involved in the remake. “Some of the production companies are very well versed at what they’re doing. They have a very clear vision of how they want to produce a show. At that point, our job is to read the scripts and make sure they’re within the brand and let them do what they’re best at doing. Other times, they need a little bit of help, which can be something as small as trimming their budget costs or as big as setting up a writer’s room. If necessary, we can send consultants on site to help facilitate our client’s specific needs.”

Basel at Dori Media says that level of assistance varies from format to format, but the goal is to supply clients with what she calls the “total value package” that can include marketing support, apps and more.

A well-executed adaptation can spawn new elements that may be built back into the format package, FremantleMedia’s Doole’s observes. She uses as an example the Spanish version of Web Therapy. “One of the top celebrities they wanted on the show was sick and was having treatment. This actor couldn’t get to the set. The producers put the set in a mobile van and they drove it to the actor on location. Now we’re going to work that into the bible for other territories.”

Doole is also bullish about Web Therapy in Spain because that show can now be sold in its finished version across Latin America. Similarly, the German edition of Wentworth could roll out as a tape sale in Europe. “We’ve sold the Australian version to 141 territories,” Doole says. “Australian programming doesn’t count as EU content. The EU has really strict rules about how much content can come from non-EU countries. Our German version does count as EU content, because it’s made in the EU by EU producers. If we sell it around Europe it’s going to be dubbed anyway, so it doesn’t matter what the original language is. We look at that whole wheel of value and we would not particularly like one of our formats to go to a producer in another territory where we don’t keep the tape distribution. We’re looking at that all the time to make sure that we are selling or managing the windowing on all the different finished versions around the world.”

Indeed, Doole is particularly excited about opportunities for scripted in Turkey because “Turkish drama is very exportable.”

Keshet’s Shahar has seen firsthand how a successful adaptation can boost the value of the original version of a show; such was the case with Prisoners of War, which inspired Homeland on Showtime and is being adapted in Korea and India, among other territories. “We went on to sell the Israeli version into 15 territories,” Shahar says.

In France, TF1 bought both the finished version and format of Mediaset’s RIS. “My intention is to sell both versions, but it depends on the territory and economic possibilities,” Caputi states.

“We see the future of this business as being able to not only create these productions for the local territories but then take the assets and sell them worldwide,” notes Fox’s Saito.

However, KABO’s Pouliot-Di Crescenzo cautions that the issue of tape-sales rights can sometimes complicate deals, particularly in the U.S. “We want to protect each brand in each country. Many countries are very protective of their scripted-format adaptation. It could be a problem for them to have a foreign version of the same format coming into the territory. As U.S. broadcasters often request the right to sell their adaptation of a scripted format internationally, this can be a challenge.”

Eccho’s Söderlund believes that “you have to find a balance—is it better to sell the format or the ready-made? If you sell the format then maybe you can’t sell the ready-made, and vice versa. In each territory you have to assess what is the best way forward to create as much value as possible.”

So what’s in store for scripted formats? Distributors have a rosy outlook of the segment, with opportunities stretching from the U.S. to China and everywhere in between, especially given the diversity of scripted-format options available on the market.

“Some territories that could never make drama by themselves, because of the cost, now have the possibility to do it,” FremantleMedia’s Doole says. “That’s a really interesting model to us. Scripted formats don’t always have to be high-end drama. You’ve got to think, What does the market need?”

And whatever the market does need, distributors are looking to heed the call.

Pictured: Mediaset’s Fury, The Wind of Hope.