×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

What makes a show run and run?

Euro industryites weigh up the Hollywood model

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.

More Scene

  • Oscars Ultimate Party Guide

    Oscar's Ultimate Party Guide 2019

    Welcome to Oscar week. It’s the time of year when Hollywood’s film industry celebrates all things movies. But it’s certainly not just the big show everyone is looking forward to. With voting closed, it’s all about the parties now. Who’s doing what and where and when are they doing it are the questions everyone is [...]

  • Yalitza AparicioTeen Vogue Young Hollywood Party,

    'Roma' Star Yalitza Aparicio, 'Central Park Five's' Jharrel Jerome Sound Off on Trump

    Yalitza Aparicio recently reunited with Alfonso Cuarón, who directed her in “Roma,” for a W magazine photo project that featured her standing at various barriers built at the border between Mexico and the United States. The message? “You can make a name for yourself despite the differences,” Aparicio told Variety on Friday at Teen Vogue’s Young [...]

  • Karl LagerfeldChanel Paris-Londres 2007/8 Show, London,

    Legendary Fashion Designer Karl Lagerfeld Dies at 85

    Karl Lagerfeld, the fashion icon – and iconoclast – who outfitted and photographed such stars as Nicole Kidman and Lady Gaga, has died. He was 85. Lagerfeld died in Paris, fashion house Chanel said. Although his health had been failing, he kept working up to his death, issuing instructions regarding Fendi’s fall ready-to-wear collection, which [...]

  • Eric Wareheim, 'The Simpsons' E.P. Matt

    Beefsteak Gathers Comedy Bigwigs for Meat and Mayhem

    The masterminds behind Beefsteak, a debauched tribute to the meaty arts that raises thousands for the Los Angeles Food Bank, switch things up each year so that guests are never bored. Organized by comedy players including Eric Wareheim, “The Simpsons” executive producer Matt Selman, and ABC Studios VP of comedy Cort Cass with Redbird chef Neal [...]

  • Alfonso Cuaron71st Annual Writers Guild Awards,

    Alfonso Cuarón on Academy's 'Inevitable' Reversal on Televised Oscar Categories

    Alfonso Cuarón isn’t exactly surprised that the Academy reversed its decision and will now air all the Oscar categories during the live show on Sunday. Feb. 24. Calling the decision “inevitable,”Cuarón tells Variety that he thinks the Academy should take things even further. “Let’s stop calling them technical categories!” he told Variety on Sunday night [...]

  • SAN FRANCISCO, CA - February 16

    San Francisco Symphony Ushers in Chinese New Year With Glitzy Gala

    As legend has it: among the Chinese Zodiac’s 12 animals, the pig comes last because it was the final one to arrive to a party thrown by the Jade Emperor — lazy sauntering being a characteristic trait of the animal. The folktale was perhaps less fitting this past Saturday evening, as the San Francisco Symphony [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content