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Premium Drama Takes Center Stage in International Marketplace

Starz's ballet world-themed limited series 'Flesh and Bone' world preemed at MipTV

Flesh and Bone
Courtesy of Starz

Now the smoke has cleared following international television program market MipTV in Cannes, which wrapped on Thursday, the outline of some of the major trends can be made out.

One trend that has been evident for a while but was more pronounced than ever last week is that the major players are ramping up production of high-end drama.

“The original programming slate at Starz has been ramping up for last two years and is continuing to do,” Gene George, Starz exec VP, worldwide distribution said. “The number of episodes of original programming in Starz has near doubled in two years from 42 in 2013 to a projected 75-80 in 2015.”

It is the same story everywhere you look — BBC Worldwide, All3Media, ITV Global, FremantleMedia, and so on – the big-budget scripted show is king.

For many of these major players, the aim is to produce cinematic-quality dramas. One example was the A+E Studios and ITV Studios co-production “Texas Rising,” which premiered at MipTV and airs in the U.S. on History.

George added: “There’s a lot of dramatic content in the market and it is generally a buyer’s market. But where it is a seller’s market is in the premium space — shows that are really high-end, with strong creative elements and cinematic quality. These types of series are rare and broadcasters can put marketing dollars behind them and make them events.”

To make these high-end TV dramas stand out producers have been plundering the movie world’s talent, on both sides of the camera.

Starz’s ballet world-themed limited series “Flesh and Bone,” which world preemed at MipTV on Monday, is from “Breaking Bad” writer and producer Moira Walley-Beckett, but has Quentin Tarantino producer Lawrence Bender (“Inglourious Basterds,” “Pulp Fiction”) among its exec producers. Australian film director David Michod (“Animal Kingdom”) directed the first episode.

Movie director Roland Joffe, who was Oscar nominated for “The Mission” and “The Killing Fields,” was at the helm of “Texas Rising.” The cast includes movie actors like Brendan Fraser.

Late last century, many filmmakers would not touch TV work with a proverbial bargepole, but the barriers are down now, and talent flows freely in both directions. “The borders between film and television are blurring ever more every week,” Martin Moszkowicz, chairman of the executive board at German media group Constantin Film, said.

It won’t always be plain sailing for the blockbuster scripted shows.

A U.S. TV exec argued: “For those of us in the content area… aspiration to make high-end dramas is one thing, execution is another. To do what we do on a consistent basis is not an easy thing.”

One battle will be to secure talent for the top-end shows. Experienced show-runners are at a premium, with European producers keen to attach experienced Hollywood exec producers to their shows.

For highly serialized drama shows, subscription video-on-demand platforms have become an important part of the ecosystem.

“SVOD is a very important factor currently in terms of our business,” said Jeffrey Schlesinger, prexy of Warner Bros. Intl. Television Distribution. “In the U.S., the appetite of Netflix, Amazon and Hulu have provided a second window outlet for a lot of programs that would not normally have a second cycle, like highly serialized shows, shows produced for cable, and for shows that are on networks but not episodic and therefore not necessarily very repeatable.”

Muscular SVOD entrants are provoking a reaction from the established broadcasters.

“Traditional channels are certainly becoming aware of Netflix and its second window behind them,” Schlesinger said. “In some cases, they’re launching their own SVOD services, like Bell and Shaw in Canada, Nine and Seven in Australia, or are starting to offer to buy extended rights so the product doesn’t quickly move out of their environment into an SVOD service.”

Like Schlesinger, Armando Nunez, prexy-CEO, CBS Global Distribution Group, sees SVOD playing an ever increasing role in the market.

“The big issue now, the big opportunity, is that with the proliferation of digital platforms there are more opportunities to monetize content than ever before through windowing the content, or offering exclusivity, and sometimes people pay premium for exclusivity,” Nunez said.

For Nunez, “The entrance of digital platforms has really woken up the market, especially since you’re talking about legacy pay operators that for the most part have been dominant players, until these new players entered.”

The demand for serialized drama has not squeezed out demand for procedurals and other episodic drama series.

“Self-contained procedurals are still something very much in demand around the world. They tend to repeat very well,” said Nunez, who had “CSI: Cyber” at MipTV.

One of the biggest announcements during MipTV was a deal inked between NBCUniversal Intl. Television Production, and two free-to-air giants in Europe, Germany’s RTL and France’s TF1, to produce U.S.-style procedurals. The deal addresses the lack of such shows in the markets.

FremantleMedia is also actively pursuing this business, and is developing procedurals with close-ended episodes through its North American arm. Among the benefits that procedurals offer are that they can be repeated more than serialized drama, stacked in the schedule and run out of order.

One challenge will be to get the in-demand showrunners to switch their attention away from serialized shows. “For the last three years all the cool show-runners have been saying: ‘Let’s do cinema for television, let’s do these amazing serialized, mind-blowing shows,’” Jens Richter, the CEO of FremantleMedia Intl., said. “There has been this trend towards serialized shows if you are cool, if you want to do something outstanding in the industry, something with cachet, and want to enhance the reputation of your personal brand.”

But there is a major drawback to this cool serialized stuff if you are a free-to-air broadcaster. “When they launched on free-to-air in Europe, the ratings weren’t always great the first time, but some of them in the repeat were a disaster,” Richter said. “When it is highly serialized and they put it out there successfully the first time, it’s out there who the serial killer is. So to repeat it is really a challenge, because the question mark of that story arc has been answered.”

Even in procedurals the characters need to develop. “There needs to be characters who evolve over the seasons. It can’t just be an episodic story. You need to be involved with the characters,” he said.

But whether a show is serialized or episodic it needs to standout, as do all shows, whether scripted or unscripted. “The brief is: Bring me something that is unique, has a hook, helps me reach my audience, creates an event… a show that is big and loud,” he said.

From FremantleMedia’s drama slate, Richter singles out Cold War-era spy tale “Deutschland 83” and “The Fight,” a romantic drama about journalists in various war zones, as shows that stand out.

One factor that is helping international producers and distributors is the proliferation of buyers in the major markets.

“There used to be a handful of buyers for TV series in the U.S. cable and pay TV arena, now there are over 60. This is an outstanding moment in the history of television,” Constantin’s Moszkowicz said.

More European telco giants will enter the TV fiction space, Moszkowicz said, adding that serialized drama works especially well in an age of view anytime, anywhere.

Producing shows in the English-language maximizes their market potential worldwide.

“German-language television series only travel in a very, very limited way. English-language opens up much bigger international market possibilities,” said Moszkowicz.

“Germany, France, Italy, Spain are dubbing countries, so nobody cares really what the original language is. But in other countries from Australia to Canada to most of Asia, English as a language is a prerequisite if you want to have an international show,” he added.

Jan Mojto, head of Beta Film, still sees the potential in foreign-language production in international markets. The key is to foster strong relationships with the top creative talent, and to focus on what is best for the quality of the programming. Sometimes, Mojto argues, creative talent produce their best work in their mother tongue and with a show set in a culture that is familiar to them.

“The language is part of a production concept in a way,” he said. “It is better to have a perfect show in German – like ‘Generation War,’ which we considered shooting in English. It would have been something different. Fortunately the world is reacting favorably – ‘Generation War’ was shown on the BBC with subtitles and so.”

Mojto says that drama series should be authentic and have integrity.

“I am in favor of genuine, coherent storytelling, which has to do also with the language, although it doesn’t mean the exceptions are not possible.”

Antony Root, executive vice president, original programming and production, HBO Europe, is another one to speak in favor of local-language production, such as “The Pack” in Poland and “Umbre” in Romania. “All these show the power of local programming if you do it right, if you market it right in these territories, to the extent that they far outperform in some cases ‘Game of Thrones,’” he said. “It is about finding something that resonates locally and gives something in the television market that other outlets are not providing.”

With MipTV wrapped, the focus now shifts to the L.A. Screenings in May. Big product suppliers were using MipTV to talk up L.A. Screenings bows that include, in terms of shows attracting attention for WBITVD, “Supergirl” for CBS, “Blindspot” for NBC, “Legends of Tomorrow” for CW, and also “The Curse of the Fuentes Women,” for NBC.