As a reliance on established intellectual property has engulfed the industry as a whole, the 72nd annual Primetime Emmy Awards have also put a spotlight on adaptations, reboots and brand extensions. Examples abound, from HBO’s graphic novel adaptation “Watchmen” to Netflix’s interactive “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” movie “Kimmy vs. the Reverend” and “Breaking Bad” stand-alone follow-up film “El Camino,” to Hulu’s adaptations of “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “Little Fires Everywhere,” FX’s “What We Do in the Shadows” and Disney Plus’ “Star Wars” universe-set “The Mandalorian.”
“They all were or are on bestseller lists so they have a massive fan base, they have recognition and they’re high-quality,” says Beatrice Springborn, Hulu’s vice president of content development, of the streamer’s properties. “The thing with books that is so special [is they] are so interior in a great way. They lie in your imagination and we’re able to bring that alive for people.”
“Little Fires Everywhere” showrunner Liz Tigelaar says book adaptations including hers may be more readily accepted than sequels and reboots based on filmed entertainment. “Just by the nature of it being a different medium, you’re going to have to find a different way to tell a story in the same spirit of the book,” she says.
But just because existing IP comes with its story, setting and characters all laid out — not to mention a built-in audience and name recognition — doesn’t mean it’s all smooth sailing for those creating new television programs out of the material. The shows still need to stand on their own and be as original as possible.
“It’s finding the capacity to surprise people,” “Watchmen” showrunner Damon Lindelof says. “You think you know what this is, but we’re gonna change it up a little bit.”
Additionally, there has to be a reason to transfer an existing story to a new format. For Melissa Bernstein, executive producer of “El Camino: A Breaking Bad Story,” that meant considering what unfinished business characters from the original AMC drama series had.
“We really had to look at where did we leave Jesse [at the end of ‘Breaking Bad’] and where are we taking him and what are we going to learn along the way,” Bernstein says.
Taking something from the past and adding a fresh spin may also account for Emmy’s embrace of the “Queer Eye” reboot. It reinvented the 2003-07 Bravo series and went on to win the structured program statue for the past two years and is seeing its third nomination now.
“It can’t be just this known IP grab,” says Rob Eric, executive producer on “Queer Eye” through Scout Prods. “We look at IP and ask, ‘Is this a story we can tell authentically [and] properly, and satisfy an audience that’s already built in?’ If you go into something with an inauthentic approach, you’re going to get dinged.”
Not all source material is created equally, either. For every best-seller such as “Little Fires Everywhere” or cultural phenomenon like “Queer Eye,” there are also smaller projects that have the potential to actually expand their brand through a new medium. Such is the case for FX’s “What We Do in the Shadows,” which is based on the well-regarded independent film of the same name from 2014.
“It [had] a cult following,” says Eric Schrier, president, FX Entertainment. “It didn’t have a broad-based following like a ‘Watchmen’ or ‘Game of Thrones,’ so it was niche, but what [executive producers] Taika Waititi, Jemaine Clement, Paul Simms and Stefani Robinson do in the adaptation is take the concept and set it in Staten Island and [that] brings in different elements to it.”
Bernstein says the current cultural moment is holding programming to a higher standard in general. “If you’re going to use this IP, rather than giving the most straight-forward, traditional understanding of it, we really try to think about how do we explore it in a way it hasn’t been explored before and touch on themes and issues people care about now, like inclusivity,” she says. “And by the way, it makes for a better story because it’s a story we haven’t seen or a point of view we haven’t understood that’s inherently more interesting.”
When it comes to the Emmy races specifically, some of these existing IP-based nominations, including a drama series nod for “The Mandalorian,” may have been aided by rule changes that expanded the number of nominees in some categories, per Gold Derby’s Joyce Eng.
“There’s room for more things to get in,” she says. But, “viewers still have to respond to it and like it.”
Adds Schrier: “Awards are more focused on execution but the IP does help you, especially if it’s based on a topic that has a level of import to it from the social side.”
Still, the success of these projects in the awards space now could affect what is developed and therefore considered for near-future awards races.
“It brings audience attention to shows the audience may have written off,” says Bernstein. “When you see a body like the Academy shining a light on it, someone may think, ‘Maybe it is worth me checking it out.’”