The golden age of TV drama has meant more programmes in production, and with resources increasingly scarce, American showrunners are coming to Europe to find work and vice versa. How far have the lines become blurred. Words: Jesse Whittock
Though the US has been the dominant force in global television for decades, its model of production has rarely been replicated in other territories. Where the showrunner is all-powerful at Hollywood studios, Europe has developed a more collaborative model.
That’s changing, however. With television attracting more and more film talent, and streaming services with deep pockets financing all varieties of scripted programmes, and local productions in Europe and the US at all-time highs, the formerly distant models on either side of the Atlantic are meeting in the middle.
“European broadcasters are finding that to compete with American imports they have to be bigger and have similar production values,” says Annabel Jones, showrunner on the UK- and US-produced Netflix dystopian drama series Black Mirror. “That means methods are blurring.”
The US showrunners, on the other hand, are finding that the number of shows in production means they are struggling to crew their series. “On a practical level, there are so many shows that the talent pool has really been thinned out, not only for actors, but writers, line producers and crew,” says Shawn Ryan, best known for FX drama The Shield. “The talent hasn’t quite grown to meet the appetite. It used to be that if you got a pilot picked up you’d have no worry getting a great crew together, and could take some time, but now it’s a feeding frenzy.”
‘The power of the US showrunner’
One effect has been an influx of European producers into the States. Sweden-born Henrik Bastin, CEO of Fabrik Entertainment, took his business to the US some years ago, and has gone on to executive-produce dramas including Amazon Prime Video’s crime series Bosch (pictured top) with Michael Connelly.
Though familiar with US programming and the system it is created in, Bastin was initially startled by the power structures. “The surprise comes when you find out the power the showrunner possesses,” he says. “They truly are the end of the line. They dictate what the shows is all about.”
This means control of the writing, casting, hiring, aesthetics and contact with network and studio execs all go through one, all-powerful person. For Bastin, the choice for Bosch was Eric Overmyer, (The Wire). Daniel Pyne replaced him for season three.
In European production, Bastin says writers are “normally just a piece of the puzzle”, with directors getting the final say on visual aspects. “It took a while to get my head around my role as a non-writing producer,” he adds.
However, the European TV auteur model, which, contrary to a well-staffed US writers room, sees one scriptwriter take on a programme entirely on their own, is now an option in the States. Nic Pizzolatto wrote all of True Detective himself, and while Noah Hawley uses a writers room for Fargo, he is known to have penned eight of season one’s 10 episodes before it was even cast.
The series, which imagines nightmarish ways technology could impact modern life, is part of a growing number of anthology dramas financed by US networks. With Netflix now the sole commissioner, and UK broadcaster Channel 4 no longer involved, the scope has moved beyond Britain, with episodes of season three shot in the US.
Jones oversees the show’s production away from the scripts, building the worlds Brooker imagines. She describes her role as very much more of a US-style showrunner than European executive producer.
“In the UK, the executive producer oversees everything, but they’re not as involved in the detail, and they rarely go to the set – maybe once or twice during filming,” she says. “It’s not as immersive as the American showrunner, where your job is to do everything. Because Black Mirror is an anthology, with different casts and worlds in every episode, I have to be across every detail and every department.”
Europe’s new showrunners
While the showrunner model is relatively alien to UK production, it is more familiar in other parts of Europe. For example, the sheer number of German free-TV soaps forces producers to create small-scale writers rooms, says scriptwriter Korbinian Hamberger.
“It’s new to work in teams across Europe, although they have existed in soaps for years and years,” he says. “That’s why I find it funny that certain primetime TV shows have no idea about them, when it is actually quite normal.”
Hamberger is part of a collection of young European writers – the Dirty Dozen (below) – all graduates of the Serial Eyes postgrad TV drama course at the German Film and Television Academy, studying under pioneering UK-US showrunner Frank Spotnitz (The X Files, The Man in the High Castle). Graduates take US-style showrunner skills and pair them with local production sensibilities.
“It’s great to have had the training, because the approach is actually still very new in German drama,” says Jana Burbach, another graduate of the programme and now a writer on Arte-ZDF banking thriller-drama Credo and head writer of ARD legal drama Die Heiland.
“Nobody knows how writers rooms work except in daily shows, so it’s a great opportunity to communicate how you want to handle the work flow and decision making. It’s an opportunity to convince people this is a good way to work.
“The rooms that do exist tend to be in Europe, and that tends to be because of the number of episodes. I was the least experienced writer in one room but was the only writer with experience of the model. It gives you a special skill-set – moderating rooms and breaking down brainstorming sessions.”
Over in Denmark, the tradition borrows more from the US than perhaps anywhere else in Europe. “We’re among the countries most inspired by the US,” says Morten Kjems Juhl of Studiocanal-owned Sam Productions.
“The reason is DR, our national broadcaster, has continuously sent Danish writers on showrunner courses in LA for the past 15 years. As a small country with a small business, we’ve tuned it that way.
“It’s not an exact copy of the American system and there are differences, but showrunners from France and the UK are much more stuck in their national traditions. It’s mind-blowing for them to go LA and see a writers room operating. For us, it’s the same basic idea – they got it first and we adapted it.”
He recently produced Below the Surface (below), a tense drama originally for Discovery Networks Denmark’s Kanal 5 that filmmaker and director Kasper Barfoed took from development to screen.
Having come from the auteur world of European feature films, Barfoed had never worked in a writers room before, let alone run one. He found the model refreshing and productive, however.
“I had co-written my last feature film, but had never written with a large-scale team,” says Barfoed. “However, Sam has a lot of contact with writers, so I got a room of really smart and experienced people together, and it was a great experience. It was never a problem or a power struggle. It was my thing at the beginning, but the best idea would always win.”
The US model, however, takes the concept of teamwork to another level.
While the showrunner will act as the lead writer, directing the plots, characters and tone and controlling the storyboard, there are often a couple of professional episode writers taking notes.
There are even people in the writers room who rarely pick up a pen at all – many are effectively employed as professional sounding boards, using extensive experience in broadcast and cable plotting to push a concept along.
“A professional episode writer is not competing with the showrunner. It is their job,” says Juhl. “We’re not that hierarchal, but the discipline is the same. Everyone knows what their role is.”
Dirty Dozen’s Hamberger has similar experiences. “In America, you get paid to sit in the writers room on the basic WGA wage,” he says.
“Showrunners would happily pick someone who is a very good brainstormer, but a terrible writer. We can’t do that here because the rooms are smaller.”
Annabel Jones says the rise of A-list acting talent creating drama and comedy for the small screen has dictated change in the US. “Americans have recognised that to pull in talent they can’t make 23-episode seasons, and have reduced the number of episodes for the high-end shows,” she says.
“An actor might give a show enough weeks of their schedule for ten episodes, but they will not have time for 23. Everyone is rethinking the rulebook.”
Equally, top-quality writers can demand their own terms. “It’s a bonanza for TV writers in high demand because they can pick and choose, and when you’re in a boom cycle it’s always the time when showrunners try to realise their own ideas and dreams,” says Fabrik’s Bastin. “That makes executive producers’ jobs harder, as we have to persuade them to come and do our ideas.”
Paradoxically, he believes the volume of shows in production will lead to a new generation of showrunners coming through. “This is a time when new showrunners are born out of necessity,” he says.
“The big ones are already doing shows.
“This happened last in the 1990s with the likes of Steven Bochco and John Wells, when people took bets on those guys. Though it can be frustrating, ten years from now there will be new showrunners who have emerged through this period.”
Bastin is currently working on Embassy Down, which is an eight-hour coproduction between Fabrik parent Red Arrow Entertainment Group’s sales arm, Red Arrow International, and MTG Studios.
“Embassy Down is being shot in Denmark, but with a Danish showrunner,” he says. “It is going to be the best of both worlds.”
High-end TV is driving such set-ups, he adds. “I have predominantly worked with Scandi creators in my career, but high-end European writers have been looking to the US for a long time, are more understanding of that system, and try to implement it to a certain extent,” he says.
“If anything, we have to push Scandi and European writers, and challenge them – we’re giving them the power to run with it. Some cannot believe they are in charge.”
Embassy Down, a multilayered drama set around a hostage situation at the US embassy in Copenhagen, is for MTG’s Scandinavian subscription video-on-demand service Viaplay. Black Mirror’s Jones says the likes of Netflix and Amazon will have a lasting effect on how high-end drama TV is produced: “The rise of the SVOD platforms will see the increase of the auteur,” she says.
Black Mirror is one of the most authored programmes perhaps ever created, with Brooker writing a new set of characters and creating a new world for each episode of the three seasons it has run to so far. Netflix, not beholden to ratings or schedules, has taken a collaborative role next to House of Tomorrow that Jones is keen to talk up.
“Netflix is minded to let the auteur run with their ideas,” she says. “They are not hands off, and they are totally interested, but they present ideas and never a diktat. It’s more hand holding, which is the best way of working, as you do need people challenging your thoughts.”
With international coproductions, especially between the US and Europe, increasing, and on-demand platforms unpeturbed by where their originals come from, things only look likely to get blurrier. Luckily, the outlook is bright, according to Hamberger, who says: “Both territories are trying to pick the best of each other.”