Coming to America

This article originally appeared in the NATPE 2015 issue of World Screen.

A number of Europe’s biggest content companies are aggressively expanding their businesses in the U.S.

The urge to “Go West” remains a powerful one, judging by the steady flow of European media companies crossing the Atlantic to set up or acquire U.S. production arms or to embark upon co-production ventures.

The reason can be summed up in a word: scale. No territory, in short, comes close to delivering the audiences, channels, platforms, commissioning opportunities, talent, budgets and license fees, not to mention the worldwide profile that comes with a “Made in America” hit. And no European company with expansionist ambitions can hope to become a global contender without breaking into, or at least severely denting, the U.S. market.

One such European player is Germany’s Red Arrow Entertainment Group, whose stable of U.S.-based production companies includes Kinetic Content, Left/Right, Half Yard Productions, Fabrik Entertainment and the Stateside branch of the U.K.’s NERD TV. Red Arrow also holds a 20-percent stake in the U.S. multichannel network Collective Digital Studio (CDS) and has forged a strategic partnership with format pioneer Mark Burnett’s One Three Media.

“I continue to be amazed by the scale of the U.S. market,” says Red Arrow CEO Jan Frouman. Everything is bigger in America, he adds: “the demand, the number of players, the number of slots and outlets—even the amount of food on set. We could have catered the entire 100 Code production with one day of leftovers from the Bosch set….”

Bosch, based on Michael Connelly’s best-selling crime book franchise, is produced by Fabrik Entertainment (AMC’s The Killing, FOX’s The Good Guys), Red Arrow’s first strategic investment in the U.S. scripted sector. Starring Titus Welliver (The Good Wife, Lost) as the titular hero—a flawed but fascinating L.A. homicide detective—Bosch is also a good example of Red Arrow’s focus on producing shows with global resonance. And that’s a mission more easily accomplished with a shiny U.S.-produced drama than with a purely European project. Amazon Studios’ first-ever hour-long drama pilot, the first series of which is now in production for an early-2015 release on Amazon Prime Instant Video, has already been sold by Red Arrow International into Canada (Bell Media), the Nordic territories (HBO for pay TV, MTG for free TV) and Italy (Eagle Pictures). On the non-scripted front, Kinetic’s The Taste and Married at First Sight are also doing brisk business around the world.

“You can’t build a large production group without a significant U.S. presence,” Frouman observes. And that, he adds, takes time, commitment, capital and a bedrock of strong relationships.

This echoes the experience of the U.K.’s ITV Studios (ITVS), whose U.S. presence has grown dramatically on the heels of a shopping spree that started in 2012 with the acquisition of Gurney Productions (Duck Dynasty). Its portfolio has since expanded to include High Noon Entertainment (Cake Boss), Thinkfactory Media (Hatfields & McCoys), DiGa Vision (Teen Wolf), Leftfield Entertainment (Pawn Stars, Real Housewives of New Jersey) and a scripted studio partnership with Prison Break producer Marty Adelstein’s Tomorrow Studios, alongside its flagship U.S. production arm, ITV Studios America (Hell’s Kitchen, The Chase, The Good Witch).

“The business in the U.S. is built on relationships and these take time to form,” says ITVS’s managing director, Kevin Lygo. From a European perspective, he adds, “deal-making is very complex, as is understanding the cultural differences of the business environment and local audience tastes.” For example, U.S. networks and studios are often uninterested in the original talent involved in a production. And, in the case of scripted projects, the level of investment in development and talent can be a shock. “If you are paying the deficit, you have to have the stomach not just for season one of a series, but for all the future seasons that a network may be ordering,” Lygo notes.

ITVS, which entered the U.S. non-scripted business in 2003, now claims to be the largest independent producer of unscripted in the U.S. It is also “forging a strong path in scripted,” Lygo says, citing three straight-to-series orders booked in the last year: Aquarius (NBC), Good Witch (Hallmark Channel) and Texas Rising (HISTORY), the last co-produced by ITVS America and A+E Studios, and produced by Thinkfactory.

Comparing the production culture in ITVS’s home market to that of the U.S., Lygo points to the latter’s rights regime, which is heavily weighted in the networks’ favor. In 2003, new terms of trade between producers and broadcasters were introduced in the U.K. allowing indies to own and exploit the rights to the programming they create. This stands in stark contrast to the U.S., where producers do not automatically own their own content. “And the rights situation is getting tougher in the U.S., with all networks becoming increasingly aggressive in rights retention,” Lygo reports.

The pitching process is also “much more formal and buttoned-down” Stateside than it is in the U.K. “You need to present a wide range of high-quality materials,” Lygo says. “Networks are also more risk-averse, so there are more steps to go through, which takes more time, which in turn can put projects at risk through change of teams, mandates, etc.”

Another key difference is that U.S. networks are accustomed to buying a showrunner’s fully fleshed-out vision, whereas European broadcasters will buy directly from a producer and collectively build a show from concept, points out Craig Cegielski, executive VP of scripted programming and development at FremantleMedia North America (FMNA), the U.S. arm of the global mega-indie that has operations in 28 countries, generates some 8,500 hours of original programming a year and distributes more than 20,000 hours of content in 200-plus territories.

“There are also pitch seasons in the U.S. that trend throughout the year in broadcast, while basic cable is open year-round, similar to the European market,” Cegielski adds.

Cegielski joined FMNA, whose U.S. production family includes nonfiction specialist Original Productions (Ice Road Truckers, Deadliest Catch, Storage Wars) and reality hit factory 495 Productions (Party Down South, Jersey Shore), in 2013 to launch the company’s push into scripted. Since then, he has guided a dozen or more projects into development, including FMNA’s first scripted series, supernatural drama The Returned, which is set to air on A&E in 2015. Based on the International Emmy Award-winning French format Les Revenants, the U.S. incarnation is a co-production between FMNA and A+E Studios, in association with Haut et Court TV, which produced the initial series for CANAL+. When reversioning such a strong original format for the U.S. market, the only modifications needed are cultural, Cegielski says. “Ensuring we deliver the same tone and energy as the original while allowing the U.S. audience to find access points to characters that are culturally identifiable is very important.” He adds that showrunner Carlton Cuse has done “an amazing job” of protecting the elements of Les Revenants that made it CANAL+’s highest-rated drama ever while massaging it into a shape acceptable to U.S. audiences.

FMNA’s relationship with its co-pro network partners is also a pivotal piece of the localization jigsaw puzzle. According to Cegielski, the decision on when and with whom to co-produce is driven by what makes the best creative sense. “The most important aspect of any co-production relationship is that we have a shared creative vision that works in service of the series,” he says. “When partnerships are built in service of the show and not just for economic reasons, the editorial is organically shared and the show is delivered as intended.”

This view is endorsed by Rola Bauer, president and partner at Munich-based Tandem, which is currently co-producing two high-profile dramas with U.S. partners: Sex, Lies and Handwriting with Lionsgate, in development with ABC (U.S.), Sat.1 (Germany), TF1 (France) and Bell Media (Canada); and the second season of Crossing Lines with Bernero Productions.

“The creative aspect must always come first,” Bauer insists. When this is sacrificed on the altar of business, and finance is allowed to dictate the narrative, the creative integrity of a project is invariably compromised. From there, she warns, it’s a short step to the indigestible Euro-puddings that gave co-production such a bad name back in the ’80s.

And Bauer should know—the Tandem chief is an acknowledged co-pro pioneer, with a track record of North American/European creative alliances that dates back to the 1986 U.S./Canadian/French TV movie Sword of Gideon. The content market of 30 years ago was a very different beast compared to today’s risk-averse, cash-strapped, digitally disrupted business, where the sharing of the financial burden has become the norm. “So now everyone is talking about international co-production and wanting to get into the game,” Bauer says. “This was not the case when I began doing co-productions.”

Another significant difference between those early days and the present marketplace is the relentless volume of original content now needed to feed the U.S. pipeline. “With the summer rerun season dying out, U.S. nets need fresh programming, where they are not carrying the full load of financing,” Bauer observes. This has not only sparked a production boom, she adds, but the “most attractive option to close these gaps is international co-production.”

As to the ingredients needed to concoct a drama that will appeal to both U.S. and European audiences, Bauer believes it all begins, as it always has, with a good story, well told. But achieving such excellence takes both expertise and money—not to mention partners with similar profiles, narrative voices and creative vision. Tandem works with top-level writers and showrunners who have proved themselves capable of generating “editorial lines that transcend borders,” Bauer reports. “Our budgets are also in keeping with the successful U.S. one-hour series that have ruled international prime-time slots for years,” she adds.

That said, the Tandem exec believes the editorial gap is closing between U.S. and European content. The U.S. success of Lilyhammer on Netflix and Downton Abbey on PBS has helped to make American audiences more open to shows with European themes. “More and more European elements are finding their way into U.S. productions, as well as more U.S. productions being set in Europe,” Bauer adds, citing NBC’s comedy series Welcome to Sweden, 90 percent of which was filmed in Sweden, and Amazon’s The Cosmopolitans, which was shot in Paris. Some of the credit for this must go to SVOD services such as Netflix and Amazon, which have dared to “push the narrative envelope” in the U.S. by airing edgier, more unusual stories, along with foreign content.

Also motivated by creative rather than commercial considerations when it comes to co-production is L.A.-based Gaumont International Television (GIT), which bills itself as “the newest division of the oldest entertainment company in the world” (GIT’s parent company, Paris-based Gaumont, was founded in 1895). “Our philosophy [is] that the editorial control should really be in the hands of the artist/creator,” says Katie O’Connell Marsh, CEO of GIT, which currently has four series in production: Hannibal with NBC and Sony’s AXN; and Hemlock Grove, Narcos and F is for Family with Netflix.

Working with NBC and AXN on the third season of Bryan Fuller’s critically acclaimed Hannibal has been a “very collaborative effort,” O’Connell Marsh reports. “Bryan Fuller’s vision and execution on this series has been masterful,” she says, adding, “We work closely with our partners to execute the best series for the needs of networks. And we work hand in hand on the marketing side to promote a clear, exciting and inciting message to the viewer globally.”

Gaumont’s 2011 decision to set up shop in the U.S. was instigated by Paris-based Vice CEO Christophe Riandee, who saw the establishment of an international division to produce English-language drama and comedy as the French major’s next logical step in building “a company that is nimble, global and creative in [an] ever-changing television landscape.” O’Connell Marsh, a former head of drama at NBC, explains, “He had the idea that it would probably be best to locate that in Los Angeles—and probably be best to hire experienced U.S. executives to put it together.”

O’Connell Marsh says GIT takes “a measured approach” to its production slate. “We have not focused on a volume business, but rather one of quality and returning series,” she says. Given that GIT has yet to have a series canceled, it is clearly a formula that works.

Another notable difference between the European and American models is the central role of the agent in the U.S. entertainment ecosystem. The likes of Creative Artists Agency, International Creative Management, William Morris Endeavor Entertainment and United Talent Agency are “a critical lifeline to the creative process,” O’Connell Marsh says. Indeed, Hollywood’s “Big Four” agencies are said to represent upwards of 70 percent of the entertainment industry’s actors, directors, musicians and writers and lurk at the heart of every significant project.

These days, the top agents do considerably more than represent industry talent—although that remains a creative art in itself. Crucially, they also “package” projects (attach a director, exec producers, stars and writers from their own stable prior to approaching a network) and “provide strategic guidance in understanding the marketplace,” O’Connell Marsh says.

“Our agency relationships have really helped grow our business,” agrees Red Arrow’s Frouman. “They can play a big role, especially when it comes to packaging a project and opening doors for newer or boutique market entrants.”

In the end, relationships—with agents, networks, co-production partners, the new content pipelines and platforms—appear to be the make-or-break factor for Europeans with U.S. ambitions. “The challenge is getting started,” Frouman says. “You have to form relationships, learn the way the business is done, establish a name for your group or company. But it can be done, obviously. It’s about diving in and proving you can deliver.”