International Studios: Drama Studies

For a week in May the attention of the TV world is focused on Hollywood studios as they present their new shows to international buyers at the LA Screenings. While the acquisitions folk are spending time – and money – with the Majors, an increasing amount of high-end drama is coming out of the LA production units set up by international companies. Stewart Clarke spoke to the key international players that have set up shop on the West Coast.

Hannibal, Da Vinci’s Demons, Low Winter Sun and Hell on Wheels are all (or will be) big-budget US series with the associated hype, star names and showrunners attached. But they were not developed on a studio lot and have French, British, Dutch and Canadian roots, coming from Gaumont, BBC Worldwide, Endemol and Entertainment One respectively.  Now New Zealand’s Pukeko and Canada’s Cineflix are joining the fray and the UK-owned contingent has recently been bolstered with All3Media’s new US division.

The next wave from the international studios includes a Joan of Arc series, two Stanley Kubrick projects, James Gandolfini and Philip Seymour Hoffman dramas as well British comedy and French short film remakes.

The cable channels being targeted by the international indie studios are based in New York, but the centre of activity is firmly on the West Coast. “The trenches are all here in LA,” one producer says. “No-one pitches in New York, except in a corporate way.”

There are 29 channels buying scripted content in the US, including the five broadcast networks. The chances of the next Lost or Elementary coming from one of the international players rather than the production units of the Studios are, however, slim. An expensive, risk-laden piloting process for network TV means few international players have the stomach or the resources to get involved. Deficit financing a cable pilot, which is almost guaranteed a series order, is a much safer bet than developing and piloting for broadcast.

About a third of new shows made it to a second season over the last two broadcast years whereas 65-70% of cable series typically get renewed, further strengthening the case for targeting cable over network TV.

Gaumont International Television, the TV division of the vaunted French film company, launched in 2011 and provides a notable exception to the cable-only rule with Hannibal on NBC. The Bryan Fuller show, based on the murderous Thomas Harris character, avoided the traditional network cycle with NBC committing to a 13-part series.

GIT’s other show is Eli Roth’s horror drama Hemlock Grove, which was also ordered to series, by Netflix.  Next up is a pilot of romantic comedy Love is Dead for TNT, based on the French short film of the same name, and a TV version of Barbarella. That will be directed and executive produced by Nicolas Refn (Drive). French premium broadcaster Canal+ is on board and GIT will add a US partner in due course.


Gaumont’s Katie O’Connell

GIT CEO Katie O’Connell knows the network system well as a former drama boss at NBC and says the independent studios do not have to work to the broadcast cycle of development-pilot-pick up. “Because we’re an indie studio we don’t have the timetables that some others have,” she says. “With Barbarella we took our time to find Refn and the perfect writers [Skyfall’s Neal Purvis and Robert Wade] there was no pressure to hit a certain calendar year and have writers assigned by a certain time.”

ITV Studios also has a US outpost and also had a straight to series project for NBC, a remake of Prime Suspect. Having failed to ignite the ratings it was replaced by another straight to series project, eOne’s The Firm, which suffered the same fate, underlining the risks of broadcast TV.

UK-listed, Canada-based eOne fared better with Rookie Blue, which is on ABC in the US and has Haven and Call Me Fitz on US cable (although they were sold internationally before landing in the US). “It’s predominantly a cable play for us,” says Michael Rosenberg, the company’s executive VP, US scripted television. “For the most part it is not our business plan to be one of twenty pilots.”


eOne’s Michael Rosenberg

The producer and distributor is now developing a World War II French Resistance drama, Saboteurs, with producer Tony Krantz (Mulholland Drive) as well as two posthumous projects from Stanley Kubrick: Civil War drama Downslope and bank robber drama God Fearing Man. A Philip Seymour Hoffman project, Upstate, for HBO, about a laid-off man who relocates his family to rural America to become a correctional officer, is still in development while a mooted Steven Bochco sci-fi series, Evolution, is not moving forward.

In terms of current trends, Rosenberg identifies a need for off-centre comedy projects. He says: “The cable outlets are looking for alternative comedy, alternatives to the network sitcoms and we’re working with a couple of talented young comedians.”

One other rare network offering from an international studio is Red Widow, which is based on Penoza, a format owned by Endemol. With a strong 10pm Sunday slot, but up against The Mentalist and cable TV ratings juggernauts The Bible and The Walking Dead the audience did not come. ABC duly cancelled it, but there remains an increasing trend for the US networks to look to international markets for ideas. This year Fox is betting on a US version of Australian legal drama Rake and BBC comedy drama Gavin & Stacey (Us & Them). CBS’ Hostages, meanwhile, is one of the latest based series based on Israeli concepts as, post-Homeland, the country cements its reputation as a creative hot house.

Over half of this year’s pilots were based on books, blogs, games, movies or other pre-existing IP.  In light of the demand for proven ideas, the rationale for Endemol, one of the biggest format owners in the world, setting up in LA and moving into scripted looks clear.

Having started taking international rights to US shows including Hot in Cleveland and Leverage, Endemol created a full-fledged US operation, Endemol Studios, in 2011. “We launched it as a start-up,” explains Philippe Maigret, the former Disney and DreamWorks executive brought in as CEO. “We were already a leader in unscripted but US scripted was a key opportunity to drive growth in the world’s biggest market and to solidify our distribution business.”


Philippe Maigret

The US unit is developing a version of Prisoners’ Wives, the BBC drama that was made by Endemol-owned Tiger Aspect, for Lifetime. It has also started acquiring third-party formats and is in the process of attaching a writer to a US remake of French political drama Les Hommes de l’Ombre having bought the rights from French producers Tetra Media Studio and Macondo.

“Our plan was to provide the resources to produce pilots and deficit finance programmes under the traditional US model – we do not need to presell or bring in international copro partners, giving us original projects that we fully own,” Maigret says.

Endemol’s Jeremy Gold developed Western series Hell on Wheels for AMC and has now shopped the same cable net a US remake of British cop drama Low Winter Sun with Mark Strong, the lead from the 2006 Channel 4 three-parter, reprising his role as a policeman caught up in the murder of a colleague. The UK series was made by Tiger Aspect.

BBC Worldwide also wants to get scripted formats away in the US through its BBC Worldwide Productions division. It is across the local versions of BBC medical comedy Getting On and James Gandolfini legal drama Criminal Justice for HBO. Worldwide has also set up Adjacent Productions in LA to get entirely new shows away with Da Vinci’s Demons on Starz its first offering.


BBC Worldwide’s Jane Tranter

Both units are run by former BBC drama boss Jane Tranter. “With the growth of cable dramas of 10 to 13 eps embracing subject matters that appeal to European audiences, the opportunities for companies such as Adjacent Productions and BBC Worldwide Productions, and British-based distributors such as BBC Worldwide, have increased enormously,” she says. “As the networks now begin to make moves into the limited series/event space – again this offers an exciting opportunity for companies like ours to make drama that works for both a US broadcaster and an international audience.”

Shine is also increasing its exposure to the US market and the hiring of former Disney Media boss Rich Ross to run its US operation, Shine America, was a statement of intent. Technically a US company since being acquired by News Corp in 2011, Shine’s strategy is analogous with that of the international firms setting up in LA.

It is currently making a US version of border drama The Bridge. “The creative firepower of our sister Shine divisions is hitting on all cylinders and presents us in the States with a strategic competitive advantage,” Ross tells TBI. “That opportunity is really playing out with The Bridge, which started its hit run in Sweden and debuts this July on FX.”


Shine America’s Rich Ross

FremantleMedia, meanwhile, has a history of making, mostly daytime, drama in Europe and Australia. David Ellender, CEO, FremantleMedia International and Kids & Family Entertainment has spearheaded a drive into US drama. The company has locked Smallville creator Mike Tollin and Bones’ Barry Jameson into first-look deals. Tollin has got The Wedding Band away for TBS and is, Ellender says, working on a US adaptation of an unspecified UK drama. Josephson is working on a slate that will be pitched to cable nets from June.

FremantleMedia also has a deal with Random House and the pair are working up the publisher’s book properties for TV and working with its authors on potential shows. Initial development has been done on the first, unidentified, projects, which will be pitched to cable nets from June.

There is also a 6x1hr miniseries with Hollywood director Roland Emmerich (Independence Day) based on Lawrence of Arabia’s life and a Marshall Herskovitz (Blood Diamond)-written period series based on the Andrew Nagorski novel Hitlerland. It is being developed as Berlin Now for TV.

FremantleMedia also has a deal with Pukeko Pictures, the TV affiliate of Peter Jackson’s Weta Workshop. The pair are working on Joan of Arc series based on Kimberly Cutter novel The Maid. Craig Pearce (The Great Gatsby) is penning the script for the TV show, which will have a different name to the book.

“Every channel has a historical drama in development but there is one bad-ass character missing – Joan of Arc,” explains Adam Fratto, Pukeko’s LA-based executive VP of development. “It’s very dark, it’s definitely a cable show, probably premium cable although it could play on an AMC, FX or even History.”

Pukeko’s Kiwi heritage and Weta connections have piqued the interest of the Hollywood community, according to Fratto. “The greatest opportunity and challenge is that we are an outside, cool, interesting company and I sense the town is trying to get a handle on us,” he says. “My strategy is telling the story of Pukeko:  ‘television from the people behind The Lord of the Rings and Avatar’. We’re trying hard to keep projects relevant to the brand — asking what makes sense from the guys that brought you Master and Commander.”


Pukeko’s Adam Fratto

The company has just sold a District 9-esque sci-fi series to a US cable net with details to follow. It is also working up another period piece based on Sterling Seagrave’s biography of Cixi, the last Empress of China.

Pukeko will bring in a studio partner to make shows its gets away whereas many of the other international companies setting up in LA want to actually be ‘studios’ – although definitions vary.

“To be defined as a studio you need production services, distribution and intellectual property that differentiates you from a production company,” says GIT’s O’Connell. Endemol’s Maigret says being a ‘studio’ “is not about real estate, it’s about having the resources to produce and exploit filmed entertainment assets”. FremantleMedia’s Ellender says of his company: “We’re not a physical studio, but we are a studio. We have contract templates and production services facilities because of the other [unscripted] shows we produce in the US.”

Whereas international sales are an important revenue generator for the Studios, the main concern with the new season shows is that they have advertisers reaching for their cheque books at the Upfronts. Retaining rights is built into the plans of the international indies. “For us, the success of a show in the US is just one element in the business cycle of a US series,” says Endemol’s Maigret.

While having an international heritage, the new studios are mostly run by US execs, making them, as far as channels are concerned, no different from the US incumbents.

“We are very international minded but our actual sensibilities are very domestic and, for the most part, that leads to content that travels well,” says eOne’s Rosenberg.

There are, however, exceptions. Jane Tranter’s right hand exec in LA is another Brit, Julie Gardner. That dynamic provides an important distinguishing factor, according to Tranter. “That our company is run by Brits abroad who are dedicated to making American television that works in both a domestic and an international context sets it apart,” she says. “The singular difference between our company and others setting up in LA with a similar aim is our ability to work on both sides of the Atlantic at the same time, to offer US television drama that understands [US] audiences, but that also provides an ambitious global reach.”

The ultimate test is how many successful shows the indies get away. “The emergence of more independent studios is proof of concept, more and more broadcasters will buy from outside the majors,” GIT’s O’Connell says. “But by and large we are defined and led by the creative – we’re in business with Bryan Fuller, Nicolas Refin, Eli Roth – we’re not defined by a model or a business plan.”

Another senior content executive notes that it takes time to establish yourself as a player in LA’s sunny environs: “A lot of different companies are popping up in the indie space, but it takes time to acclimatise to being here and only a handful are doing it well… at the moment.”

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