The Royals – Lionsgate’s regal ambition

E! is best-known for its glossy entertainment programming and awards show coverage, but like many US cable channels has now taken the leap into drama, ordering its first series, The Royals.

Kevin-Beggs-Headshot-2014Shot in London, the show stars Elizabeth Hurley as Queen Helena, the head of a fictional British Royal family.

Mark Schwahn (One Tree Hill) is executive producer, writer and director of the show and another One Tree Hill alumnus, Brian Robbins, is also an exec producer.

Announcing the new show in March, Jeff Olde, executive VP, original programming and development at E! said: “The Royals will offer a fictional look behind the very public gilded facade of the palace gates to imagine the private, lush, fun, sexy world of the most-watched celebrity family on the planet.”

Kevin Beggs, chairman of Lionsgate Television Group, tells TBI that the show will fall squarely into the guilty pleasure category. “From an American perspective it will follow something delicious and forbidden, about a family whose exploits we vicariously live though in the tabloids,” he says. “For countries that have a royal family it will be more about wish-fulfilment.”

Beggs is in London while the finishing touches to the show are being made. Having produced a steady stream of US hits, Lionsgate is well-versed in making drama for US cable channels, but E! is different in that it is a drama virgin.

From an American perspective The Royals will follow something delicious and forbidden. For countries that have a royal family it will be more about wish-fulfilment.

“We have made a living working with nets that are jumping into scripted, or using scripted as part of a rebrand or way to platform their channel, from The Dead Zone for USA [Network], Mad Men for AMC, Weeds for Showtime and Orange is the New Black for Netflix,” Beggs says. “We’re experienced at getting in on the ground floor. In the past two years four or five new players have emerged, including Netflix, [and] we have gone into business with them with for the first time.”

He adds: “The biggest challenge was making a new drama shot in London, and with a mostly non-American cast about a fictitious but contemporary royal family.”

Like another Lionsgate show, ABC’s country music drama Nashville, location was key for The Royals, from both an editorial and a financial point of view. The series is set in London, so shooting in the English capital offered an obvious advantage. It also allowed Lionsgate to tap into the new tax break for high-end drama shot in the UK.

Beggs says: “Like Nashville, we needed to be in a certain location from a purely creative point of view. With Nashville it needed to be made in the home of country music and it was an added benefit that the State of Tennessee offers tax breaks, which helps build the business case. I couldn’t conceive of [The Royals] made any other way, but the incentives are attractive. A lot of studios are doing it.”

 

 

The Lionsgate TV chief adds that the introduction of the tax break has meant production staff and crews cost more as demand rises. “The Star Wars factor [Star Wars VII is being shot at Pinewood] alone is consuming a huge part of the crew base,” he says. “There is a trade-off in a lot of places that encourage studios, but on the whole there is a net benefit.”

The show shares other DNA with Nashville. “Nashville was about country music royalty. I would also draw comparisons with Dallas, something that steps into a rarefied world that is out of reach,” says Beggs.

The Royals will be sold internationally by Lionsgate’s distribution arm, which is run by Jim Packer and Peter Iacono. Given the UK-specific subject matter, Beggs says a UK deal is a priority, but buyers need to see more of the show, having had a glimpse at the LA Screenings in May.

The Royals is about royalty and Nashville was about country music royalty. I would also draw comparisons with Dallas, something that steps into a rarefied world that is out of reach

“The UK is a high priority,” he says, adding that there is a lot of interest in the concept, but also some reservations and it will need to prove itself on-screen. “We’ve not shown people the whole thing and want to show them multiple episodes to show them what it’s going to be and the quality with a cast led by Elizabeth Hurley and Mark Schwahn from One Tree Hill and Brian Robbins from One Tree Hill and Smallville, that’s 21 years of series just there.”

The E! show will not have the royals space to itself when it comes to international sales. There is a resurgent interest the British royal family: for example, Netflix is also shooting a regal drama in the UK, The Crown, which is being made by Sony’s Left Bank Pictures and will star Helen Mirren as the British monarch. It will be tonally very different from E!’s sexy, glamorous take on the subject matter.

“I don’t know about the other show, but from what we know of working with Netflix it will be very different,” Beggs says. But can the market sustain two shows covering similar ground, albeit in very different ways? “How many cop shows or lawyer shows are there?” he counters. “Just when you thought you couldn’t do another one you get a True Detective.”

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