When Netflix spent big money on two seasons of The Crown back in 2014, it marked a watershed moment for the production industry. With the show’s fifth and seemingly final season now in the works, Andy Harries, CEO and co-founder at Left Bank Pictures, discusses what’s next for the industry and his company
Andy Harries has always tended to be ahead of the curve. He was a Brit pitching projects in the US almost a quarter of a century ago; was among the first to strike a deal with Netflix; and is now awaiting the launch of short-form platform Quibi to test out his opinion that the TV world is simply “speeding up.”
So it might be a surprise that one of his soon-to-launch projects involves a TV format that’s two decades old and sees him working with more ‘traditional’ commissioners in the form of US cabler AMC and ITV in the UK. Yet Quiz, a three-part drama that tells the story of an audacious heist on the UK version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, also neatly reflects Harries’ deep relationship with TV, despite the fact he is now so intrinsically linked with streaming.
“I got incredibly excited about the idea of Quiz,” he says. “I saw the play by James Graham in [the UK city of] Chichester and knew I wanted it as soon as I saw it — before I saw it to be honest.”
‘Next Martin Scorsese’
But Harries hasn’t always been involved in drama. Comedy was his first love and following “some lost years in LA” during the late 1980s when he thought he’d be “the next Martin Scorsese,” he made his mark at the UK’s Granada Television, working on shows such as ITV’s Cold Feet and the BBC’s The Royle Family. Both shows are fundamentally British but offer premises that are universal, that oft-requited combination in today’s scripted world.
Back in the 1990s, Harries looked Stateside, taking the shows to Hollywood to explore further opportunities. “I’ve always loved going to LA – I wouldn’t want to live there but I’ve always enjoyed driving around in the sunshine,” he says. Attempting to export Cold Feet and The Royle Family didn’t go well, however.
“We did several pilots for both shows, all of which were total disasters, but they taught me a lot,” Harries says. Part of the problem was being ignored by those on the US side, but Harries’ trajectory continued and he went on to head up ITV drama, working with a youthful Peter Morgan and Helen Mirren on Prime Suspect. Perhaps fittingly, it was the Oscar-nominated 2007 movie The Queen that acted as “a turning point,” proving that both he and Brits could mix it with those in the US.
“We were slow in this country to exploit what we do best, which is making TV,” he explains, “but we are among the best, that’s just a fact and the Americans respect that.” Left Bank Pictures, backed by BBC Worldwide (now BBC Studios) followed. It has gone on to produce dramas ranging from Morgan’s The Special Relationship for HBO to Wallander for the BBC and Outlander for Starz.
Such was the company’s success, that within five years, Sony Pictures Television had taken a majority stake. Harries admits he was “a bit sad” to sell the company in 2012, but he’d seen the way the business was going.
“It was clear that the only way you could make an impact in the US was to have an American partner. It’s the same today, I don’t think you can really operate as a successful independent in LA, you’ve got to have a partner and representation. That’s the way Americans do business and you have to respect that.”
Taking off The Crown
Having a deep understanding of the US system means he is well placed for the industry’s latest evolutionary turn as US streamers go global en masse. He struck gold with The Crown for Netflix in 2014 – “let’s be straight, it was right place, right time and right idea” – but says the industry is now unrecognisable to what it was.
Providing both contrast and continuity is White Lines, a three-part Ibiza-set drama about clubbing that’s set to launch on Netflix this summer. Both shows are licence deals, but the intense competition and the immediacy of the current scripted environment is clear.
“When a show goes up on Netflix these days, it is all about the first week or two. If you don’t hit it then, you are pretty dead. Television is becoming like the film business – it’s like the opening weekend.” There are also similarities between The Crown and White Lines: Netflix snagged the former’s writer Morgan in October, and the streamer has also struck a deal with Álex Pina, the acclaimed Spanish scribe behind White Lines and La Casa De Papel before it.
“Amazon and Netflix are just like the American studios – like Universal, Paramount and Warners now. They are increasingly keen for people to work with them on the lot, to give out shows that they want made, that they will own, and you will work directly for them.”
Despite this, Harries is upbeat: to date, he says, he’s always been able to get the writer he wants, and anyway, “the recipients of big chunks of change” in return for studio or streamer deals, provide opportunities for younger writers.
Pouncing on IP
Packaging projects, however, is key, “unless you have undeniable subject matter,” a sign of the huge competition in scripted at present. For Harries, the 500 shows coming out of the US is extraordinary. “I struggle to watch more than 20 or 30 a year, so there’s an awful lot of stuff not being watched. I suspect we have probably peaked but until the streamers settle down, we’ll have an accelerated fever over these ‘undeniable projects’.”
Harries points to the fight for IP on several recent podcasts as an example of this “fever” and suggests he expects consolidation on the streaming front. For others, such as the BBC, the future is unclear but his support for the UK pubcaster is unequivocal.
Everything is shrinking. It wasn’t long ago American series were 13 if not 15 episodes, or more. For the last few years it was 10. Now eight is the new 10. If you go and pitch a ten-parter, they’ll say, ‘ooh, how about eight’.
Left Bank CEO Andy Harries
“It’s at the absolute heart of our creative industries,” Harries says, admitting that he cannot fathom why the current government seems intent on reducing its impact. “Netflix and the others cater for global audiences brilliantly, their shows increasingly have a feel that they can be perfectly watchable in Hong Kong or Argentina or the UK,” he explains.
“It means we should be vigilant. It’s the very British shows that might not instantly get a global audience, there’s the worry,” he argues, pointing to dramas such as the hugely successful Peaky Blinders as a series that a streamer would likely never have commissioned.
“Everything is speeding up,” he continues. “My prediction is everything will get shorter, the half hour will be the new hour. People’s attention spans are shorter, I can see why Quibi could work, not from a financial aspect, but why people would be interested.”
Harries also suggests he understands why The Crown is to end after the fifth season on Netflix rather than the sixth, as many had thought was the plan. Firstly, Morgan has been writing the show for almost eight years and “needs a break,” the Left Bank boss says, before admitting that the show might yet return – “perhaps [Morgan] doesn’t think it’s the end-end.”
But, he adds, “everything is shrinking. It wasn’t long ago American series were 13 if not 15 episodes, or more. For the last few years it was 10. Now eight is the new 10. If you go and pitch a ten-parter, they’ll say, ‘ooh, how about eight’. What used to be five is three.” Viewers, he adds, are simply not coming to streamers for shows in their third or fourth seasons. “And that’s the big difference with broadcasters,” because long-running shows don’t pay when few potential subscribers will join up for a series entering its umpteenth run. They need fresh hit after hit, instead.
It seems the scripted evolutionary curve is taking Left Bank and the industry into a new era, in which expanded ambitions within a contracting timeframe will simply become the new norm.