Over the past decade, many of the world’s best drama series have come out of Hollywood, driven in large part by the quality and the originality of the writers — think “Mad Men,” “True Blood” and “Desperate Housewives” to name just a few.
But the Hollywood production model for big-budget, long-running skeins — a team of writers led by a showrunner — isn’t one that’s widely used elsewhere, and opinions are split as to whether it should be.
“There is no doubt that the U.S. makes great shows,” says Ben Stephenson, the BBC’s head of drama, at the launch of the pubcaster’s fall season. “But we need to stop punishing ourselves for not being American.”
Stephenson says the showrunner system is not suited to the BBC’s financial model or British culture, where shorter runs of series and minis are the norm.
“We shouldn’t compete with America when it comes to 24-part series — our business models are completely different,” he says. “The BBC should embrace everything that is uniquely British.”
Stephenson has crafted a season rich in strongly authored single dramas and miniseries, with high-profile writers and helmers including David Hare, Jane Campion, Richard Eyre and Sam Mendes attached.
But there is another way to compete with the top U.S. shows: simply recruit the talent behind those shows, says Pascal Breton, prexy of French shingle Marathon.
“The bad news is that the best talent is in Hollywood, and it is becoming more difficult for European producers to compete with that,” Breton says. “The good news is that because the stakes are so high in the U.S., the writers don’t have as much creative freedom as they’d like, so they are happy to come to work in Europe.”
Marathon has had success in international markets with long-running, French-language drama skein “Saint-Tropez,” but now it has shifted its focus to big-budget English-language series, and is employing Hollywood showrunners to steer them.
For the $30 million English-language, 12-episode “Versailles,” about the court of King Louis XIV, Breton has brought in “Mad Men” scribes Andre and Maria Jacquemetton. Breton has several other English-language series in development with “Versailles”-level budgets.
Marathon’s experience with kids’ toon series “Totally Spies!” showed it was possible to have Hollywood writers (Los Angeles-based writers Robert and Michelle Lamoreaux, both formerly with Nickelodeon) work alongside European talent (production exec Vincent Chalvon Demersay and helmer Stephane Berry, both former Saban staffers) to create international hits.
Breton is now applying this approach to drama series, teaming showrunners who have experience in the international market with European writers, so that the writers can learn from them.
For Breton, European drama has suffered from showing too much reverence to helmers. “There has been too much focus on the director,” he says. “Television is all about the script. You need a great story. That is where we need the best talent.”
More so than ever, having an experienced writer on board is central to getting a drama series off the ground, says Richard Life, head of acquisitions and co-productions at Blighty’s ITV Studios Global Entertainment.
“Writers, on the whole, are the people who get the commissions. Most commissions are based on the script; that’s what gets you in the door,” he says.
Life believes it is unlikely many U.S. showrunners will be brought to the U.K. to work, but the critical role played by leading writers in the commissioning process has allowed them to take a more prominent role in the industry.
This has encouraged a third production model, similar to the U.S. showrunners model but with a Brit twist.
In this model, experienced local writers, wearing an exec producer hat, head a team of scribes — although they may also work alongside other exec producers.
It’s a model that has been embraced by many U.K. production companies and all broadcasters, including the BBC.
As head writer and exec producer, Russell T. Davies launched the successful reincarnation of “Doctor Who,” working alongside Steven Moffat and other writers. Moffat has now taken the reins.
Both multihyphenates also have exec producer/head writer roles on other series — Davies with “Doctor Who” spinoff “Torchwood,” and Moffat with “Sherlock,” a modern reboot of the Sherlock Holmes crimers — and both have a high level of control over all aspects of production.
This combo model also allows new writers to come to the fore under the wing of the more experienced scribes, which tackles another issue within the business.
“The hard thing is getting commissions for work by unknown writers,” Life says. “There are certain people that seem to have that magic touch, and so people keep coming back to them. Newer writers only get traction because established writers are saying: I want to work with this new writer.”
Life cites Tony Jordan, whose Red Planet produced hit skein “Hustle,” about a group of enterprising con artists, and hospital drama series “Crash,” as an example of an experienced writer-exec producer who has nurtured fresh writing talent.
“Tony is interested in mentoring new writers,” Life says. “He has managed to get things from new writers commissioned because the broadcasters trust him.”
The adoption of this model in Blighty has been driven in part by a move toward longer-running series, rather then miniseries.
“If there is one trait from the U.S. that may finally be reaching here, it is the commitment to longer runs,” says Life, citing ITV’s recommissioning of “Downton Abbey,” a costumer written and exec produced by Julian Fellowes, and “Law and Order: U.K.,” a local version of Dick Wolf’s series produced by U.K. shingle Kudos.
“The talk here is very much of committing to longer-running series, as opposed to the three- or four-parters of old,” Life says. “But it is easy to recommit at higher volumes to a series that has already been a success. The trick will be the first show you see commissioned (by a terrestrial broadcaster) straight out of the gate that is completely new and original at 10 or 13 episodes. That’ll be quite a moment.”
Meanwhile, News Corp. pay-TV platform BSkyB has embraced new, long-running series. It recently greenlit $27 million series “Sinbad,” showing it is willing to put its money where its mouth is when commissioning locally produced drama.
The series is being co-produced with Tim Haines’ Impossible Pictures (“Primeval”) and, surprisingly perhaps, BBC Worldwide.