Distributors will tell you that if they could have one drama production in their portfolio it would be an evergreen returning franchise that rakes in the cash year after year. But this doesn’t alter the fact that TV movies, minis and limited runs are also regarded as valuable assets and are increasingly getting recommissioned as returning series, reports Andy Fry.
There’s no question the mini/limited series sector has grown in significance in recent years. The primary reason has been the key role these shows play in helping channels and platforms stand out. “Limited series with strong characters and a good plot can be promoted as event TV by linear broadcasters,” says Caroline Torrance, head of scripted at Banijay Rights. “They can also be successful on SVOD services such as Netflix where subscribers are often happy with a six-to-eight part series that is satisfying in itself without the long-term commitment required of a multi-series drama.”
The market is awash with strong examples. From Banijay’s own slate Torrance cites 5x60mins Dear Murderer (left). “It tells the story of notorious criminal barrister Mike Bungay, who defended over 100 homicide cases and lived a life of excesses,” she says. “We also have The Accident [6x60mins] produced by GTV for France 3, a thriller about a man who refuses to believe his wife’s death was an accident.”
The fact that Banijay is headlining dramas from New Zealand and France is a good indicator that the mini/limited series boom is not simply a US-led phenomenon. Echoing recent developments in returning series, “We’re seeing limited series from many territories sell well,” says Moritz von Kruedener, managing director of German-speaking territories at producer-distributor Beta Film. “A good example is our German-language limited series The Same Sky, which has sold to 100 territories, including Netflix for English-speaking markets. We have also seen strong interest in NSU Germany History X [80 territories] and our period drama Maximilian just launched in Austria.”
Other examples confirm the international flavour of the mini/limited boom. FremantleMedia, for example, is shopping its TV adaptation of Australian movie classic Picnic at Hanging Rock, starring Natalie Dormer, while Federation Entertainment have the German/Luxembourg financial thriller Credo. France’s Newen Distribution has Ouro, an eight-parter about a geology student who goes to French Guiana. That show recently sold to On DirecTV in Latin America.
Sonar Entertainment is also pushing a German-language event drama at MIPTV. Das Boot is an adaptation of Lothar-Gunther Buchheim’s novel, previously turned into a movie. David Ellender, Sonar’s president of global distribution and coproductions, is excited by the addition of Andreas Prochaska as director, claiming that “having him on board ensures that the original vision for the story and the series will hold true”.
Das Boot takes its place alongside Sonar’s Anglo-American fare – Taboo, Mr Mercedes and The Son – and Ellender is clear it won’t be the company’s last non-English project. “We have another German project in development and are looking at some Nordic noir,” he says.
Sky Vision managing director Jane Millichip is another exec who is trawling the globe in search of quality mini/limited series. “Returnable franchises are our lifeblood,” she says, “but there is a growing appetite in the mix for mini and limited series.” She cites the example of Bad Blood, a Canadian six-part thriller based on the true story of Mafia boss Vito Rizzuto. Written by Simon Barry (Van Helsing) and Michael Konyves (Barney’s Version), the show is inspired by organised crime experts Peter Edwards and Antonio Nicaso’s bestselling book, Business or Blood: Mafia Boss Vito Rizzuto’s Last War. “I think they’re particularly good for biographies and true life stories,” Millichip says.
Katrina Neylon, executive VP, international sales and marketing at StudioCanal, is another who sees strong interest in limited series from outside the US. “Examples include eight-part French-language political thriller Baron Noir on Amazon UK, Sony in Germany and SBS Australia; multi-language series The Last Panthers, which has sold to over 120 territories; and Midnight Sun, now sold to over 90 territories.”
From the Nordic region, she points to the new eight-part crime thriller Below the Surface (left). Produced by Sam Productions for Kanal 5 and coproduced by ZDFneo Germany, it centres on a subway train beneath Copenhagen, where 15 people are taken hostage by three masked armed men.
Not to be overlooked are UK-originated short series, she adds. “Trust Me, from Red Production Company for BBC One, is a new four-part mini-series by Dan Sefton,” says Neylon. “Set in Edinburgh, it’s a character-led thriller that tells the story of Cath (Broadchurch’s Jodie Whittaker), a nurse who, after losing her job, steals her best friend’s identity as a senior doctor.”
According to Neylon, limited-series budgets are dependent on the nature of the show. However, there’s no question that the need to stand out is pushing up above-the-line talent costs as producers go in pursuit of A-list actors, writers and directors. This in turn is making coproduction a necessity in many cases, with deficit-financing models increasingly important.
Upcoming examples that prove the point are McMafia (right), an eight-part BBC/AMC copro that centres on the English-raised son of Russian exiles with a mafia history. Also in the works are The Spy Who Came in from the Cold from The Ink Factory and again for the BBC and AMC; Howards End, a 4x60mins coproduction from Wolf Hall prodco Playground Entertainment for Starz and the BBC; and Guerrilla, a hotly anticipated Sky and Showtime copro starring Idris Elba.
The heavy UK involvement in these projects is no surprise given that the British commissioning system has always been happy to support shorter series. Julie Meldal-Johnsen, ITV Studios Global Entertainment director of global content, shares Torrance’s view that limited series are valuable as part of a balanced portfolio. “We are working on The City and the City,” she says, “a 4×60-minute adaptation of China Miéville’s acclaimed sci-fi novel by Mammoth Screen, with a script by Tony Grisoni.”
“It’s a very versatile format in terms of the subject matter it covers,” Meldal-Johnsen says. “It’s also a format that provides scope for creative risk-taking.”
Increasingly, she adds, content creators are looking for ways to get the best of both worlds, by creating event-style limited series that have the potential to return. She cites the example of Fearless (left), a new ITVSGE drama starring Helen McCrory as a crusading lawyer. While the first series is a self-enclosed story consisting of six episodes, the ambition is for it to return.
Harlots (pictured top), an eight-part period drama from ITVSGE lends itself to a similar approach. So do limited series like Sonar Entertainment’s Taboo, FremantleMedia International’s Deutschland 83 and Beta Film’s Gomorrah, all of which have been renewed.
Also new to market are APC’s mystery thriller The Forest and Federation Entertainment’s Credo, both initially as six-part productions.
Content Media executive VP sales and distribution Jonathan Ford agrees that this attempt to create limited/returning hybrids is a key area of activity, with examples ranging from Sherlock to The Bridge to the numerous anthology series coming out of the US. “Our best example is Line of Duty, which has grown out of the limited series space to become a key returning franchise,” he says. “We’ve enjoyed success with miniseries like The Secret Agent, but it also makes sense for distributors to try and give audiences and broadcasters shows that have an event feel, but can return.”
Content’s new limited series include Date My Dad, “an uplifting drama about a widower trying to get back into the dating game”, and 21 Thunder, a Montreal-based show about the challenges facing young football players trying to break into the first team. “I haven’t seen a show like this before,” says Ford. “It deals with all the behind-the-scenes issues faced by young players and has a very international feel about it. It’s got a great edge and has a lot of young-adult appeal.”
Beta Film’s von Kruedener agrees that there is a trend towards limited series with potential to return, but he also points out that there can be a scripted format dimension to a miniseries launch too. “We have a Belgian show called Professor T that was 26x60mins in Belgium, but remade as six hours in France for TF1 and four hours in Germany for ZDF,” he says. “The shorter runs are a way for broadcasters to test the appeal of a show. ZDF attracted five million with their version, so now they have the option of ordering a new series.”
High-profile talent can boost the prospects of a mini/limited series. So can a reboot of a great idea, says Peter Iacono, president of international television and digital distribution at Lionsgate. “A reimagining of a well-known movie like Rosemary’s Baby or Dirty Dancing means that a legion of fans are excited by the prospect of a new version and you aren’t starting with something completely unknown,” he says.
Lionsgate’s new version of Dirty Dancing (above) comes to TV as a three-hour musical event, which is also sold to international broadcasters as a 3x60mins miniseries. Also on offer from Lionsgate is The White Princess, a companion piece to The White Queen, both of which are part of the company’s portfolio since the recent acquisition of Starz.
Echoing Meldal-Johnsen, Iacono says TV movies and miniseries can sit across any genre. “For Lionsgate, we have had tremendous success across many genres: sci-fi with Dresden Files, Ascension and Lost Room, action series like Kill Point and period pieces like Houdini. Great storytelling can be achieved in any genre. However, limited series must deliver an authentic and gripping storyline from the outset – there isn’t time for a slow build.”
TV movies, meanwhile, continue to have a key role to play on US cable and in the major continental European markets, says Beta Film’s von Kruedener. “This is a different phenomenon to what we are seeing with miniseries and limited series,” he says. “We still sell TV movies across Europe, but they are catering to a more traditional demographic.”
Is there, however, scope for TV movies to reinvent themselves as a more auteur-driven genre, as minis and limited shows have done?
Von Kruedener’s view is that the single format is less attractive to most buyers than multi-episode events that can be played across a number of nights, but he does acknowledge that the boundaries are blurring.
Netflix’s investment in original movies, for example, is an illustration of the theatrical experience being redesigned as home entertainment.
Patrick Vien, executive managing director of international at A+E Networks, says: “We’re very committed to them as a format, producing around 30 a year. They do extremely well on our Lifetime network and in terms of third-party sales. We have multiyear deals with TF1 in France, Atresmedia in Spain, and TV2 in Norway. We also have strong relationships with RAI 2 in Italy and HBO Europe.”
The auteur qualities of the genre are less obvious because the main emphasis is on the mainstream female audience. “But the creative and quality bar is rising,” says Vien. “We have some really interesting projects, like Michael Jackson biopic Searching for Neverland, a film about the infamous Menendez Brothers’ murder of their family and another about the unsolved murder of child beauty queen JonBenét Ramsey.
“Also just reaching the market is Beaches, a remake of the romantic movie starring Bette Midler and Barbara Hershey and a great biopic about the career of singer Britney Spears.”
Content Media’s Jonathan Ford agrees that there is a stable market for “traditional action adventures and women-in-jeopardy TV movies in territories like France, Italy and Spain”. However, he also points to the growth in crime series like Sherlock, “where you get a series of self-contained TV-movie-length stories”.
“We’ve built up a nice franchise that way with an Irish detective series called Jack Taylor starring Iain Glen,” he adds.
In addition, he says: “We have had examples of high-quality singles that can work either in TV or theatrical. The Eichmann Show starring Martin Freeman was a good example. It played on BBC Two in the UK, and was picked up by The Weinstein Company in the US for TV and boutique theatrical release.”
Katrina Neylon points to Red’s single drama Danny and the Human Zoo as evidence of room for stylish TV-movie-length stories. Even more significant is news that StudioCanal-backed SunnyMarch TV is teaming up with Pinewood Television to adapt Ian McEwan’s novel The Child in Time as a 90-minute film starring Benedict Cumberbatch.
Amelie von Kienlin, senior VP of scripted acquisitions and coproductions at Red Arrow International, says it’s important to differentiate between types of TV movies.
“One segment of the market is big-budget, high-end and talent-driven movies that are produced almost like feature films and built for primetime,” she says. “Another segment is TV movies that are thematically on the lighter side and easy to consume, and can be scheduled for both daytime and primetime. The second type of movie probably provides the most slots internationally, particularly in major dubbing countries such as France, Italy and Spain.”
Red Arrow’s recent TV movie hits include Peter & Wendy, Roald Dahl’s Esio Trot, Berlin One and Jack the Ripper. The latter, for Sat.1, secured a 14% share, nearly double the average. Looking ahead, von Kienlin says: “Our new TV movies include two big historical event movies: The Puppeteers from Ziegler Films for ARD in Germany and The Heretic Bride (above) from TV60Filmproduktion, which recently launched on Sat.1. Also in this market we have Hallmark Channel movie Sound of Christmas and the final movie in the hugely successful High Society Murder movie franchise from Tivoli Film for ARD and ORF in Austria.”
In terms of trends, von Kienlin detects one towards romantic comedies and Christmas movies, in part as a response to some of drama’s darker shows. “As drama series have pushed the boundaries of what is acceptable to show on screen, these kinds of TV movies have proved a bit of an antidote to that,” she says. On the subject of non-English movies and miniseries, she says there is definite demand. “We have output deals and client relationships in most major markets for our German TV movies. The library titles also continue to remain attractive to certain buyers.