Amid what is described as the ‘Golden Age’ of TV drama there is an increasing trend to look to feature films for small-screen inspiration. John Hazelton looks at the film-to-TV trend and reveals how top creative talent to raiding is studio vaults to find material for the small screen
When Fargo won this year’s Emmy for best miniseries, creator Noah Hawley ended his acceptance speech with a sly smile and a modest proposal: “Let’s do it again. What do you say?”
Hawley was, of course, talking to the Fargo production team that joined him on stage at the awards ceremony and nodding to the fact that the series, based on the 1996 Joel and Ethan Coen feature film of the same name, had just been ordered for a second 10-episode run by US basic cable network FX.
But the writer-producer, previously best known for crime dramedy Bones, could almost have been talking to the entire US industry. Because Fargo is part of a new wave of television series based on features, a wave that is taking the idea of movie-inspired episodic TV – which last led to a series Emmy in 1979, when M*A*S*H* notched its fifth and final Best Comedy win – in some interesting new directions.
The current trend is being driven by a number of factors, first and foremost the boom in demand for original programming from cable channels and SVOD services like Netflix and Amazon.
“There’s an enormous amount of shelf space for high-quality drama,” says Roma Khanna, president of MGM Television, president of MGM Television, which is the coproducer of the Fargo series with FX Productions, and owner of a 4,000-title film library that includes the original Coen brothers feature. “Everyone’s looking for a great idea, and it’s one more resource.”
For networks, movie spin-offs can be a way to tap into the of kind dark, edgy material that is currently in vogue in the TV market but that has largely been squeezed out of the theatrical market by comic-book adaptations and other family-friendly blockbusters. And the familiarity of the material can provide reassurance as more channels forego pilots and move towards straight-to-series ordering models to cut costs and encourage auteurship.
For SVOD outlets, meanwhile, the film world can be a source of the kind of complicated, serialised storytelling that is especially suited to binge viewing.
For studios and production companies, basing a series on an existing movie is not so much about economy – savings on development costs are insignificant, according to executives – as it is about creating brand recognition that can help attract initial interest from writers and talent, from a network, from audiences and from international buyers.
Going out into the international marketplace with a series based on a well-known film “unquestionably helps, because you have that built-in brand recognition and appeal”, says Peter Iacono, managing director of international television at Lionsgate, whose movie-based projects have included Oscar-winner spin-off series Crash and the recent miniseries version of Rosemary’s Baby.
When a movie – or its auteur creator – is particularly popular in a given territory, that popularity can stir buyer interest in the spin-off series. And even when the movie had mixed fortunes internationally, the record of its performance can help the distributor of the series make more accurate revenue estimates and better tailor marketing plans.
Initial audience interest doesn’t always turn into ongoing audience support, and recent movie-based flops have included the short-lived 2011 Charlie’s Angels revival, which followed the 2000 movie version of the original seventies series, the 2013 adaptation of Beverly Hills Cop, which got no further than a pilot, and this year’s Bad Teacher, which CBS canceled after three episodes.
Producers say that spin-offs sometimes fail because a studio’s film division, seeing theatrical sequel possibilities, holds back rights for too long, allowing the built-in appeal of a series to fade. Series may also founder because they present a derivative take on a feature with more creative quality and – especially where effects-driven films are concerned – better production values.
Recent movie-based hits such as Friday Night Lights, which ended a five-season run in 2011, and Parenthood, now entering its sixth and final season, have been loosely based on their source features. Several other current spin-offs go to considerable lengths to find new takes on the material that inspired their creation.
Now going into its second season on NBC, Universal Television’s About a Boy is based on the 2002 British film of Nick Hornby’s novel but moves the story’s location from London to San Francisco and makes other set-up changes that, in the words of series creator Jason Katims (also an executive producer on Friday Night Lights and Parenthood), “allowed there to be an excuse for episodes of television to happen organically.”
“You always honour the source material,” Katims adds, “and refer to it and use it at times. But while you’re doing that it’s absolutely essential that you move on and let these characters live and breathe on their own.”
Bates Motel, also from Universal and soon to start production on its third season for A&E, is a prequel to its big-screen inspiration, Hitchcock classic Psycho, but focuses on the relationship between a younger version of the film’s Norman Bates character and his mother.
Executive producer Kerry Ehrin, another Parenthood and Friday Night Lights alumna, admits that she was initially reluctant to get involved “because it’s such a dark subject and the film is a classic, so there were a lot of ways to screw it up. But there was something about the mother-son relationship that was so compelling that at the end of the day it felt worth the risk”.
For Ehrin, the famous film title was “a bit of a Trojan horse”. “You get to sneak in your own take on the characters or however you want to explore the world,” she says. And while the Bates Motel audience essentially knows where the story is heading, “the fun of it is going there in ways that they aren’t expecting”, she adds.
MGM’s two current series based on movies from the studio’s library – the company hints that more are on the way – illustrate different approaches to source material.
The fourth season of MTV series Teen Wolf “has almost nothing to do with the original [1985 comedy] movie, which was a very light, sweet piece, and the show is actually very dark and edgy”, says MGM boss Khanna.
Fargo – which uses none of the characters from the film and will, in its second season, take place in a different era – was a project that creator Hawley and executive producer Warren Littlefield wanted to make. “We challenged them to not make it a remake,” Khanna recalls.
Upcoming movie-to-TV series now being developed in the US are likely to come from a range of studio and independent producers and could employ even more different approaches to adapting big-screen material.
Though the company declined to discuss its production strategy in detail, the recently resurrected Paramount Television appears to be jump-starting its operations with a slew of projects based on movies in the Viacom-owned Paramount Pictures library.
The new division coproduced last year’s Beverly Hill Cop pilot and already has a 13-episode straight-to-series order from Nickelodeon for a musical comedy based on 2003 feature School of Rock as well as a reported put-pilot commitment from the Fox network for a female-led spin on 2002 sci-fi movie Minority Report.
The division is also thought to be developing a Shutter Island prequel series for HBO and small-screen episodic takes on such movies as Terminator, The Truman Show and Ghost.
20th Century Fox division Fox Television Studios recently secured a six-episode first season order from Lifetime for Damien, a series sequel to seventies Fox horror outing The Omen, and put a project inspired by 2002 drama In America into development with HBO.
FTVS’s senior vice president of programming Nancy Cotton suggests that Damien, with former The Walking Dead showrunner Glen Mazzara as an executive producer, will tap into the US market’s “big fascination with genre and horror”, and, with its focus on an adult version of the film’s central character, take advantage of prevalent storytelling techniques.
“TV, and particularly cable TV, is now so novelistic,” Cotton says. “There’s an interest in doing projects where you can unfold a story more slowly and get deeper into your characters.”
Independents with movie-based projects in the works include Entertainment One Television, which is working with rights controller Nu Image on a series spun off from the Rambo movie franchise.
The project, which was being pitched to US buyers a few weeks prior to MIPCOM, will be a ‘hand-off series’ featuring the son of the original Rambo character (to be played on the small screen by big-screen star Sylvester Stallone).
“Action series aren’t done a lot,” says eOne Television executive vice president, global production Carrie Stein. “The idea of doing an action series for a broad audience was really appealing. The introduction of this new character will give the series a really contemporary feel.”
The idea was introduced to international buyers in May, and Stein says she was “stunned at the enthusiasm we got. The reason is that the Rambo films continue to air and the ratings are huge”. The buyers “were excited that it wasn’t a cheesy eighties retread of the films”, she adds.
Where the movies-to-TV trend itself will go next could depend both on its current proponents and on new entrants to the adaptation business.
After the success of Fargo and other unexpected film-based hits, some executives are beginning to see more spin-off potential in independent and even foreign films.
“We’re already looking at series from outside the US to be adapted in the US, so why not look at films from outside the US to be adapted as series,” asks Lionsgate’s Ianoco.
The pool of independent films being scrutinised for possible TV adaptation has already expanded with the recent launch of television divisions at Alcon Entertainment, which is best known for features including Insomnia, The Blind Side and Dolphin Tale, and Legendary Entertainment, the producer of The Hangover franchise and The Dark Knight.
The most recent film indie to enter the television business has been IM Global, and Mark Stern, president of the new IM Global Television division, confirms that TV projects based on features – either from IM Global’s own library or outside sources – are “definitely part of our plans”.
Stern, who was previously president of the Syfy US cable channel, says: “In an extremely crowded and competitive marketplace, you’re looking for any edge that will get you noticed, and one of the best ways to do that is to have a title that people recognise.”
Referring to the theatrical world, Stern says: “There is less creative courage because of how high the stakes are in features now.” By comparison, “Television has become more and more bold, and you’re seeing a migration of talent that wants to do creatively bold things. Where they used to do it in features, now they’re going to TV and doing it there.”
Like other executives who are helping to fuel the trend, Stern suggests that the latest crop of movie-based series confirms rather than refutes the idea that this is a ‘Golden Age’ of television drama.
Because of expanding demand for scripted series, “there’s more opportunity to tell interesting stories and to look at adapting movies”, says Stern. “Fargo is a perfect example of a movie that would never have been looked at for adaptation maybe five or eight years ago.”
Now, says the IM Global Television chief, television producers “are willing to take more chances and be more creatively adventurous, in a way they might not have a few years ago.”
Television, it appears, truly is the new must-have accessory in Hollywood.