Branded with an indie label

Scripted-logo-460_2The-SonThe LA Screenings was set up initially as an opportunity for the major US studios to show their scripted series to international buyers. However, over the years it has evolved to the point that it is starting to resemble markets like NATPE, MIPTV and MIPCOM.

While the likes of Disney, Fox, CBS, Sony and Warner Bros. continue to be a key attraction, this year’s event (May 16-19) at the Intercontinental Hotel involved 79 exhibitors from all around the world, showcasing scripted and unscripted content. In addition, many more companies circled the edge of the event – taking advantage of the fact so many buyers are in La La Land at the same time this month.

MGM president of worldwide television distribution and acquisitions Chris Ottinger says the event is “a great opportunity to showcase content”.

“We have screenings, but these days the event almost seems to stretch out over two weeks – which means you get proper lengths of time to talk,” he adds.

Get-ShortyA big  priority for MGM will be Get Shorty (above), a ten-part reimagining of Elmore Leonard’s 1990 New York Times best-selling novel previously adapted by MGM that starred John Travolta as Chili Palmer, a loan shark who comes to Hollywood on a job and ends up stumbling into the movie business. “The new series doesn’t have the Palmer character, but it deals with the same subject and has the same biting humour,” says Ottinger. “Humour, which we’ve seen in shows like Breaking Bad, Fargo and Justified, is missing from the market at the moment.”

The series, which will be screened across a number of days, will air in the US on cable channel Epix, leading to another talking point.

“We’ve just acquired control of Epix, so the Screenings are a chance for us to talk about our content and our plans for the channel,” says Ottinger.

Alongside Get Shorty, MGM will be screening never-before-seen footage  of Condor, a contemporary TV adaptation of the classic movie Three Days Of the Condor. Set to air in the US on AT&T’s Audience Network, it centres on a CIA analyst who returns to his office after lunch to find everyone has been killed, and sets out to solve the mystery.

Elisabeth-Moss-as-'Offred'The LA Screenings will also be a chance to update buyers on Margaret Atwood adaptation The Handmaid’s Tale (above), which recently started airing Hulu in the US, and has been sold to Channel 4 in the UK and HBO Nordic. “It’s a beautifully shot show that has been greenlit by Hulu for a second season already, and been picked up by a lot of international networks, so we’ll be continuing with the sales effort,” says Ottinger.

MGM is one of a number of large independent studios that has taken advantage of the recent boom in demand for scripted shows. Others include Lionsgate Entertainment, which will be in town with Ten Days in the Valley, the story of a single mother TV producer whose daughter goes missing in the middle of the night, and Dirty Dancing, a reimagining of the iconic movie starring Abigail Breslin as Baby, Debra Messing as Marjorie Houseman and Colt Prattes as Johnny Castle.

A+E Studios will also have a high profile at the LA Screenings, showcasing Knightfall, a period drama about the fabled Knights Templar that is set to air on A+E Networks’ History channel. The series stars Tom Cullen and has Dominic Minghella as showrunner.

For A+E Studios executive VP Barry Jossen, it’s an example of the “high quality, well-produced drama buyers are looking for”. “We’ve set ourselves the challenge of working with the best talent and that’s what we’ve been able to do with Knightfall,” he adds.

It’s a similar story with A+E Studios’s Six, which launched on History in January. A fictional series about the US Navy SEALs, the show was the number one new scripted series in ad-supported cable during its run and has already been picked up for an extended second season (up to ten episodes, from eight). “It proved particularly popular with young males,” says Jossen.

Not to be overlooked is A+E Studios’ burgeoning relationship with female-focused network Lifetime (sister to History). Jossen points to the well-embedded series UnREAL and new psychological thriller You, the  latter of which received a ten-part straight-to-series order, and comes from the prolific Greg Berlanti and The Magicians co-creator Sera Gamble.

Based on Caroline Kepnes’ best-selling novel, it tells the story of a bookstore manager who is obsessed with a young writer – transforming himself from stalker to boyfriend.

Paul Buccieri, president of A+E Studios and A+E Networks Portfolio Group, says A+E Studios was launched as a platform to get into the high-end scripted game. “Out of the gate, we have created tremendous momentum with series like Roots, UnREAL, Six and Knightfall that connect with our viewers and contribute to the global prominence of A+E Networks,” he says.

Buccieri says shows like these are part of a strategy to deliver more high-end series to History – with another as-yet-unnamed show to be unveiled shortly. “We are increasing the volume of scripted production delivered to History, but we aren’t limited to working with A+E’s portfolio of channels,” he adds.

“We also have scripted projects with ABC and Hulu among others.”

Entertainment One Television president of global scripted programming Pancho Mansfield says the way his firm approaches the Screenings depends on production and distribution cycles at the time.

“Last year, we screened the Mark Gordon titles Designated Survivor and Conviction, which were both network shows, but cable and SVOD are greenlighting shows all year round, so the launch pattern doesn’t always tie directly to LA in May,” he explains.

Key titles on eOne’s slate include Sharp Objects, an eight-part drama for HBO based on the best-selling novel by Gillian Flynn. “We have Amy Adams starring and Jean-Marc Vallee directing after his success with HBO’s Big Little Lies,” says Mansfield.

eOne has also secured high-profile talent for Picture Paris, a half-hour comedy project starring Meg Ryan that will air on Epix.

While all of the above are US-anchored shows, Mansfield stresses that his company’s output is more internationally balanced than ever, with shows like Gap Year and The Other Guy coming out of the company’s development hubs in London and Sydney.

Also on the slate is The Rocks, “a love story and a mystery where the action happens in reverse”, says Mansfield. Based on the Peter Nichols novel of the same name, the show will be directed by Tom Harper (War and Peace, Peaky Blinders).

Although the novel is set in Mallorca, a final decision hasn’t yet been taken on where to locate the TV adaptation. “One of the advantages of having different development hubs is that we have options in terms of where we decide to locate a story,” says Mansfield.

Mr.-MercedesJenna Santoianni, executive VP of television series at Sonar Entertainment, agrees with Mansfield that the level of a company’s activity at the LA Screenings depends very much on project timing. “This year, we’ll be very active at the Screenings with Mr Mercedes (above), our new mystery thriller for AT&T’s Audience Network,” she says.

Adapted by David E. Kelley from a Stephen King novel, the ten-episode show follows an insane killer (played by Harry Treadaway) who taunts a retired detective (Brendan Gleeson).

“The result is a really tense cat and mouse thriller in which the two try to outsmart each other,” says Santoianni. “Season one is just wrapping production and it looks fantastic.”

Sonar is also celebrating the fact that its Western/oil industry drama The Son (pictured top), which stars Pierce Brosnan, has been greenlit for a second season by AMC.

The Son targets a different audience to some of AMC’s genre shows like The Walking Dead, but it resonates well with the channel’s traditional audience,” says Santoianni. “One of the things you have to do in this competitive market is identify subjects or stories that you know are popular, but are not on television right now.”

Another company with a packed agenda at the Screenings is ITV Studios America. Company president Philippe Maigret says the studio will be showcasing Somewhere Between, a drama for ABC based on a format from SBS in Korea.

The ten-part show, which recently started shooting in Vancouver, is about a mum who knows her eight-year-old daughter is going to be murdered.

Soon after joining last year, Maigret set himself the ambitious task of making ITV Studios America one of the leading indie scripted studios within five years. He points to the affiliation with its parent, leading UK commercial broadcaster ITV as a boon. “That gives us the financial resource we need to build this company into a real creative force,” he says. “At the same time, we benefit from the distribution network provided by ITV Studios Global Entertainment.”

Financial clout is only part of the story though. “Within the US, our advantage is our independence,” says Maigret. “It means we can be aggressive, nimble and flexible in our deal-making with talent.”

Maigret has targeted partnerships with established talent. He points to Tomorrow Studios, a joint venture with Marty Adelstein that is currently working on a TV version of Korean movie Snowpiercer, and the formation of Circle of Confusion Television Studios, a joint venture with talent management and Walking Dead production company Circle of Confusion. Time will tell if ITV is successful in its goals.

WisdomofCrowd-pilot110223_0654biAlso active around the LA Screenings is Keshet Studios, which received two network pilot pickups for the new season (with one more at ABC pending): CBS’s Israeli format adaptation Wisdom of the Crowd (above) and NBC drama The Brave.

While the likes of MGM, ITV and eOne are particularly well-positioned to take on the major studios, continued demand for scripted series has created opportunities for several independent studios.

Critical Content, whose credits include Start Up (Crackle) and Limitless (CBS), has just optioned the TV rights to produce a limited series based on Ursula K. Le Guin’s iconic novel The Left Hand of Darkness. Endemol Shine Studios, meanwhile, has acquired the rights to Laura Esquivel’s novel Like Water for Chocolate to adapt for TV. Elsewhere, FremantleMedia’s adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s cult novel American Gods has been awarded a second season by Starz.

MarVista CEO Fernando Szew has recently expanded his company’s activities into scripted series. On air at time of writing is Rebel, a John Singleton drama for Viacom-owned channel BET that tells the story of a female cop who becomes a private investigator after the police kill her brother. “At a time of racial tension and allegations of police brutality, it’s a topical show, and John is a force of nature – an inspiring character who knows how to attract talent,” says Szew.

Marvista’s push into series has also seen it join forces with US production firm Piller/Segan on supernatural Lifetime drama Sea Change, and, more ambitiously, pact with IM Global on a TV series based around the world of King Kong, titled King Kong Skull Island. “It’s an origin story that will have a female protagonist,” says Szew. “We were really attracted to it because it is a universal brand that has never been adapted for TV.”

Another company enjoying success in the new TV landscape is IDW Entertainment (IDWE), a subsidiary of comic book and graphic novel publisher IDW. “Until a few years ago, IDW would option its IP to movie studios, take the cheque and watch as the option expired,” says IDW Entertainment president David Ozer.

Wynonna-Earp“However, this division was set up to take advantage of the growing demand for quality TV series. Our key success to date is Wynonna Earp (above), a major ratings success for Syfy channel.”

IDWE’s development slate today is a mix of ideas based on IDW and third party IP, as well as some original ideas. The beauty of the model, says Ozer, is that a TV hit can be reverse engineered into comic book publishing if the conditions are right.

In terms of other projects, IDWE recently completed a pilot of Brooklyn Animal Control for USA Network. “We have also just been given a pilot order by Hulu for Locke and Key, a horror/fantasy adaptation based on an IDW comic by Joe Hill,” says Ozer. “The project has Carlton Cuse on board, which illustrates the kind of talent we’re able to attract with our IP.”

IDWE is also teaming up with the increasingly significant IM Global Television on LD50. Created by Scott Dacko, it is set in a world in which a virus has decimated the male population.

Of course, one big question for all of these indies going into the LA Screenings is whether the scripted market is capable of sustaining its current levels of activity. One key talking point in Hollywood is the significant drop in the number of pilots and series picked up by the big five US networks (down from 88 pilots to 73 year-on-year).

Sonar’s Santoianni sums up the general mood, however, when she says: “The buyers may change on almost a daily basis, but as one door closes another opens. There are more opportunities than ever for great stories and scripts.”

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