The consistent expansion of the U.S. television landscape coupled with an increasing number of emerging platforms has meant the hunger for new content is greater than ever. While streamers such as Netflix often fulfill that appetite by acquiring international series outright, the demand for adaptations of successful formats from series created in other countries is growing exponentially as well.
The burgeoning value and influence of global television “is creating new star writers and directors around the world,” says Paradigm TV literary agent Steve Wohl. “It’s creating opportunity for new voices to get heard.” And to answer the demand, Wohl says a lot of time must be dedicated “out in the world,” identifying “the top production companies … and top distributors in each region.”
For Wohl and Paradigm’s Bill Douglass, who have long specialized in packaging international properties into U.S. series — including “Maniac,” a Norwegian show that inspired Patrick Somerville and Cary Joji Fukunaga’s Netflix 2018 limited series, and “Tell Me a Story,” a Mexican format that Kevin Williamson adapted for CBS All Access — the key to a successful adaptation lies in the team they package to bring the format to life in the United States.
“You would look at what broadcasters you believe the property fits in terms of demographic or creative, then begin to look at the studio that controls that broadcaster, then begin to look at the [production] companies, or overall deals that they have with producers and writers, and then it begins to come into focus, as to who the producers are going to be submitting to each individual studio,” Douglass says of their “reverse engineering” strategy.
In the case of “Maniac,” Douglass says they gave the original series the logline of “‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ for television.” Boiling the idea down to something recognizable, they were able to drum up a “100% positive response rate” for the trailer that they sent to a select group of producers.
“’Hey, if you let us option the format, we’re going to deliver you X creative talent,’” Douglass says was the pitch and the promise. Ultimately, Anonymous Content acquired the property and brought in writer Somerville and director Fukunaga to create the U.S. version, as well as stars Jonah Hill and Emma Stone.
Such adaptations have a long history, beginning in the 1970s when high-profile series such as “All in the Family” and “Three’s Company” were derived from British sitcoms. In recent years the tradition has expanded: not only has U.K.-produced fare inspired hits including “The Office,” “House of Cards,” “Veep” and “Shameless,” but also a diverse array of nations have delivered templates for beloved series, including “Homeland” (Israel), “Jane the Virgin” (Venezuela), “The Killing” (Denmark) and “Ugly Betty” (Colombia).
Korean-American actor-producer Daniel Dae Kim has long enjoyed a taste for South Korean dramas. When he discovered that country’s acclaimed, single-season “The Good Doctor” he immediately recognized the inherent qualities ripe for U.S. adaptation.
“Not only did it have interesting characters, but it also had the engine of a tried and true genre, and that is the medical drama,” Kim says. “That’s something that we had on American television from the time that TV was invented.”
Negotiations for the property were extensive, because no South Korean property had been successfully adapted for the U.S. market. “It was very helpful that they knew who I was as an actor,” he says. “And the fact that I was Korean also helped, because it was something where it felt a little bit more homegrown.”
As executive producer, Kim ultimately teamed with David Shore to develop the series and successfully pitched it at ABC, where it became a breakout hit in its first season.
“You really have to do the best you can as a producer to find the right total package,” Kim says. “That means finding the right writer, pitching the right networks at the right time and having the right vision for the piece.”
Crucial creative tweaks tailored the show for a domestic audience, though. “Socially, the interactions between people are slightly different. For instance, the senior resident sometimes gets physical with the younger residents,” Kim says of the Korean format, “and that’s something that we could never have on our show because it’s a different cultural norm.”
As the boundaries between territories continues to blur with content becoming more accessible overall, some audiences may feel that adaptation attempts come up short when compared to the originals. Wohl notes that this can be common in the cases of “hands-off” approaches from the original creators on the adaptation.
“The writers and creators in Europe, in particular, are so adept and so talented that now we’re trying to keep them more and more involved,” Wohl says. “We’re starting to bring a lot of the talent from Europe into the States now to write original specs or write scripts in English. That’s where we think the market is going.”
It is certainly the case for Showtime’s upcoming remake of the U.K. comedy “The Wrong Mans.” The original was created by James Corden and Mathew Baynton, who are both attached to the U.S. version as well. They have also lined up the original series’ director Jim Field Smith.
Similarly, HBO’s version of “Euphoria,” an Israeli series created by Ron Leshem, Daphna Levin and Tmira Yardeni, will be written for American television by Sam Levinson, but with Leshem, Levin and Yardeni executive producing, undoubtedly providing crucial tonal guidance and consistency.
But because developing adaptations can be a long process, such companies as Banijay Rights find themselves selling global series outright more these days, particularly to the ravenous streaming services. Recent success stories include the French supernatural drama “Les Revenants” (known in the U.S. as “The Returned”), the Norwegian series “Okkupert” (aka “The Occupied”) and the Swedish and British versions of crime drama “Wallander.” (Banijay also has a “Young Wallander” series forthcoming at Netflix.)
“In the U.S., it tends to be the streaming services who are more likely to take the original version of something, rather than perhaps the traditional U.S. networks. They have a different audience,” says Caroline Torrance, Banijay’s head of scripted series. There, she believes, “people are these days less bothered by the fact that it might be subtitled.”
Adds Kim: “It’s a brave new world, and it’s nice to think globally.”