Four years ago, Cecile Frot-Coutaz, the CEO of UFA’s parent company FremantleMedia, unveiled a shift in strategy to focus more on scripted content, with the aim of moving the share of revenue coming from scripted from 30% to 50%. At the time, the company was best known for primetime, shiny-floor shows like “American Idol” and “America’s Got Talent.” “This was a company that did really well making big shows that were in the zeitgeist; they were events; people talked about them,” Frot-Coutaz says. The challenge was to transfer those same qualities into drama.
The streaming platforms’ growing appetite for adventurous drama, following the trail blazed by the cablers and niche digital channels, had creating space for foreign-language fare like “Narcos” and Nordic Noir, and novelistic-style filmmaking like “Top of the Lake.” “They opened up creative avenues for producers that before were only available in independent filmmaking,” Frot-Coutaz says. “It means the field is really rich now and all of a sudden it is much more of a creator’s medium, and you can tell pretty unique stories. Maybe niche stories but because you can play them across the global marketplace they’ll find enough of an audience.”
Sarah Doole was recruited as the company’s director of global drama to ramp up its scripted firepower. It expanded its inhouse teams in the U.S. and the U.K., and added to the drama producers it already owned, such as Germany’s UFA, by acquiring drama companies around the world, such as Italy’s Wildside in Italy and Denmark’s Miso, and setting up new firms, albeit with established executives attached, like Britain’s Euston Films. It now has drama outfits in 10 countries.
Now that effort has begun to bear fruit, with shows like “The Young Pope,” starring Jude Law and Diane Keaton, directed by Oscar-winner Paolo Sorrentino, and produced by Wildside for HBO and Sky, and “American Gods,” which is based on Neil Gaiman’s novel, and is produced by FremantleMedia North America for Starz.
The latest crop of shows include pre-apocalyptic crime drama “Hard Sun,” produced by Euston and written by “Luther” scribe Neil Cross, and period drama “Picnic at Hanging Rock,” produced by FremantleMedia Australia. Upcoming shows include “My Brilliant Friend,” an Italian-language series based on Elena Ferrante’s bestseller, and produced by Wildside for HBO and RAI. FremantleMedia Intl. (FMI), the company’s global distribution arm, is handling sales for all these shows.
Four years ago drama sales contributed less than 10% of FMI’s revenue. This year, 45% came from scripted, up from 30% in 2016. Jens Richter, FMI’s CEO, credits UFA’s Cold War drama “Deutschland 83” as having kick-started FMI’s drive to boost its scripted business. The show was sold to 200 territories, including to the Sundance Channel in the U.S., where it was the first German drama series ever to air on a U.S. linear channel. In the U.K., where it aired on Channel 4, it was the highest rated non-English language drama in British television history. “[The show] put us on the drama map,” he says.
Doole says: “We wanted to tell unusual, fresh and compelling stories that would resonate around the world. It doesn’t matter now what language it is in. If it is a great story we can take it around the world. ‘Deutschland 83’ was the start of that journey.”
She adds: “‘Deutschland 83’ was a learning curve for us because it’s about finding a way into a story. In one way it was a traditional Cold War story but the way in was through a young character and you go on that journey with him.”
The success of “Deutschland 83” has been matched by “The Young Pope” and “American Gods,” which both attracted positive reviews and strong audience figures.
The ambition isn’t to challenge mainstream drama, Richter says. “We are not trying to follow the American drama model or compete with the U.S. studios. We are trying to find stories that have a distinctive voice in terms of storytelling and look, and set in a very specific world.”
One challenge for FremantleMedia and its production companies is to persuade the local broadcaster to agree to the changes that elevate the show to a level where it can attract international sales and fund a bigger budget. When packaging “Picnic at Hanging Rock,” for example, this involved attaching British actress Natalie Dormer of “Game of Thrones” fame as star, and Canadian director Larysa Kondracki, who has helmed U.S. shows like “Power” and “Legion,” rather than Australians. Both brought with them an international track-record and awareness. “That show has great traction in the market and the reason is that we elevated it to a different level. We made it a different show,” Richter says.
Christian Vesper, FremantleMedia’s executive vice president, creative director, global drama, who works with its producers to enhance their shows’ worldwide appeal, underscores the effort made to transform shows like “Picnic at Hanging Rock” from local into global hits. The attaching of Kondracki was key to this. “She is an amazingly well-regarded TV director and brought an incredible vision, and took what could have been just a very good Australian show and elevated it to the point where based on the fact that Natalie Dormer was attached and a five-minute reel we sold the U.S. rights to Amazon,” he says.
Vesper also helped Wildside make “My Brilliant Friend” more palatable for English-language audience tastes by attaching American writer Jennifer Schuur, whose credits include “Hannibal” and “The Catch,” as exec producer. “We worked with them to hire [Schuur] even though it is all in Italian. We brought [her] in to shape it so it worked for Anglophone audiences,” he says. It is the first foreign-language show to be co-produced by HBO in the U.S. “They took a lot of comfort from the fact that a writer they knew and liked was already on the show.”
The challenge, Doole says, is to tell “stories that haven’t been told before or tell them in a different way.” The market now demands something that is “so surprising, refreshing or creative that [the audience] have never seen it done that way before.”
She adds: “It is a global market now. If a story is told with passion and has got a heart to it, then that’s universal.”