As ad revenues have dropped on free-to-air channels around the world, the number of hours devoted to drama have been cut. However, not all types of drama have suffered equally.
TV movies have largely disappeared from terrestrial primetime, but miniseries are relatively robust in the global markets.
Movies are a tough sell, whatever the quality. Digital Rights Group’s CEO Jeremy Fox points to the example of “A Short Stay in Switzerland,” a drama about assisted suicide starring Julie Walters.
“It has done pretty well,” says Fox, “but it was a bit like pulling teeth in that people said, ‘Well it’s a great show, but we don’t have a slot.’?”
There is still a role for the TV movie, with slots on cable and in daytime on some free-to-air channels, but they usually have to be targeted at a particular demographic. Like miniseries, TV movies can act as backdoor pilots, but it’s a tough biz to be in.
“There’s a business there,” says E1 Television CEO John Morayniss. “The jury’s out whether it is a good business.”
With TV movies, the price point is the main issue for buyers, whereas with minis, the quality of the casting, source material or effects are more important, even if that tends to nudge up costs, says RHI prexy-CEO Robert Halmi Jr.
“In the TV-movie market, budgets have gone way down,” Halmi says. “In the event market, it’s the other way. They are looking for high concept: great events with big cast. The market has gone in two directions at the same time.”
Miniseries act as a kind of a loss leader that can be used to promote a channel.
“The miniseries is about saying, ‘This is what our channel is about. Come and watch more.’ And to do that you have got to shout loud,” says Noel Hedges, head of drama at ITV Studios Global.
Minis are also more efficient to market than TV movies.
“You have to promote a show, and when it is a one-off it can be very hard to get through the clutter,” Shaftesbury Films chairman and CEO Christina Jennings says.
At the same time, minis can be used strategically in the skeds. “Broadcasters love them to counter a sports event or some other kind of event that the competition is airing,” says Engine Entertainment chief exec Chris Philip, who adds that action-adventure, thriller and disaster minis are the most popular genres with buyers.
Although securing a U.S. commission helps with international presales, it’s not essential. Tandem’s $40 million event mini “The Pillars of the Earth” was recently picked up by Starz, but its production was financed by drawing on a range of sources.
“You know the French word bricolage? We were putting the pieces here and there and, based on our track record, we had partners who believed in us,” says Tandem managing director Rola Bauer, who sees a similarity between this approach and the way an indie film producer would finance a pic, combining coin from co-productions, soft money, presales and private equity.
Other shingles, such as RHI and MarVista, also work in this way.
“We’ve always been an independent company in this drama space on the television landscape,” says MarVista CEO Fernando Szew.
“Very much proactively looking at partners and creative funding sources, and that’s been our primary pitch to networks in the U.S. and the major territories — we are true partners. We want you to get the most bang for your buck. We don’t just want to be a service production company.”
But minis don’t have to be expensive to be popular, argues Hedges.
At Mip, ITV is launching the remake of taboo-busting drama “Bouquet of Barbed Wire,” which is an event “just because it is a gripping story,” says Hedges. “You don’t need special effects to shout loud; the quality can shout sometimes.”
Yellow Bird managing director Mikael Wallen agrees but concedes that the casting of a star, Kenneth Branagh, as the lead in crime drama “Wallander” helped.
“It was a big step for the BBC to commission a series based on a Swedish book and place it in Sweden,” he says. “Without Branagh, it wouldn’t have been possible.”
France is an exception to the rule, with broadcasters still running TV movies in primetime.
“They are afraid of long-running series,” says Zodiak senior VP of drama Pascal Breton. “They prefer to start with a TV movie and if it is successful they will do one or two others, but it doesn’t really work this way.”
Most international producers are shifting their focus from TV movies to minis and series.
Zodiak, for example, is negotiating multipartner deals for seven English-language miniseries and limited series, all period procedural or adventures, and Digital Rights Group is moving into the event mini biz as the international partner on two U.S. network miniseries, which Fox hopes to unveil at Mip.