Distribs eager to sell mature characters overseas

While youth will always be served in the global television landscape, U.S. producers are discovering the appeal of a little maturity.

Many American film actresses older than 40 are enjoying a professional renaissance in meaty smallscreen roles that are proving to have strong international appeal.

“We’re a little late coming to the party, and we’re recognizing it,” admits Marion Edwards, president of international television for Twentieth Century Fox Television Distribution.

Edwards says that a dearth of film roles for these actresses is one of several reasons behind the TV boom in mature women.

“You could also say we’ve saturated the market with male-dominated programming. But there’s another half of the planet that is interested in these other stories. Women who are older than 40 can be complex and interesting and sexy,” Edwards says, using Helen Mirren in “Prime Suspect” as an example.

“The same is true for Holly Hunter in ‘Saving Grace,'” Edwards continues. “Their characters are deeply flawed with major issues. Life is not simple. Life isn’t about Rob and Laura Petrie. And in looking for a broader audience, we need to appeal to people of varied interests and background.”

Arguably, Mirren was the first to prove the international sales power of a female driven show with the “Prime Suspect” series.

“When it first aired,” Granada Intl. head of drama Noel Hedges recalls, “everyone was hit in a way that nobody really expected. In the U.K., we had female leads who weren’t just young pretty girls, but nothing like this — that was more of a feminist political kind of role. I think it’s the power of her performance and the uniqueness of her character that has enabled that series to travel.

“We are seeing other older actresses in lead roles, such as Caroline Quentin in ‘Blue Murder’ and Felicity Kendal and Pam Ferris in ‘Rosemary & Thyme.’ It’s worth noting that for us as an international distributor, a lead female is a real plus. It’s very much attractive to buyers. Many of the larger European territories that have always been predominantly interested in the more commercialized American younger vision of women are now opening up a bit.”

Julianna Margulies, who stars in frosh drama “Canterbury’s Law” for Fox, says “it’s about time” for older actresses to get the opportunity to show they can carry series here and abroad.

“I am so sick of every script I get for a film, it’s the girlfriend of … the wife of … it’s always the shadow,” Margulies says. “Women aren’t seen for their full potential in film the way they are in television. I’m thrilled that women are taking over in television in a beautiful way. Not to take away from men. I love them, but it should be equal, and I think it finally is happening.”

Hunter, who won an Oscar for “The Piano,” believes that the cable networks are willing to take more risks, including letting women take the lead on stories that traditionally centered on men.

“It’s undeniable that something is going on — zeitgeist,” she observed this summer during the Television Critics Assn. press tour. “In my sparse knowledge of television, it really does seem to be that … a door has been opened. In the ’70s, anti-heroes were all over the place in cinema, and now it seems that it’s happening on television with women. It’s interesting.”

Adds TNT senior VP Michael Wright: “As an executive, you’re looking for stories that haven’t been told, and you’re looking for characters that haven’t been explored. One of the themes … that we’ve come lately to exploring is complex, unexpected, complicated women.”

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