Sky to Delay International Drama Shoots Until Spring 2021, Focuses on U.K. Scripted Shows

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Justin Downing

Comcast-owned pay TV operator Sky is recommending that dramas with significant international shoots delay filming until spring 2021 because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The U.K. commissioning team is instead looking to create more local scripted shows, like hit thriller “Save Me,” which are not so expensive or challenging to produce in the current environment.

Last week, Sky revealed that “Save Me Too,” created by and starring Lennie James, was the most downloaded show among U.K. subscribers during lockdown, followed by East London-set “Bulletproof 2.”

Speaking in a live Edinburgh TV Festival-moderated YouTube interview today with the Sky commissioning team, Sky director of drama Cameron Roach said he is being “quite cautious” about any dramas that are due to shoot abroad. “I have said to those indies that (are making them) that it is probably better for us to plan those shoots for spring 2021 rather than having to be shooting in 2020.”

Roach added: “This might be viewed as too cautious, but I want us to be realistic and work carefully with our partners across the pipeline.”

Roach explained that all planned co-productions are continuing, and that Sky is talking regularly with its co-production partners. However, he explained:  “As we push certain bigger shows further out – the one with ambitious shoot cycles – I think there will be opportunity for more license fee-plus shows so we’re not always relying on big international coproductions… To see more ‘Save Me’ shaped shows in our pipeline is not a bad thing. As ever we want a mixed ecology… We enjoy our partnerships but we mustn’t be totally dependent on those partnerships.”

He said that Sky is now looking closely at how it can get U.K. shoots up and running, and that he was targeting mid-summer for them to go into pre-production or production.

Detailing a specific time like this, he explained, gives writers’ rooms and prep-teams a date to focus on. “What’s been really important for all of us is to have something to aim for. I think if we just said the future is completely unknown, that is hard for people to motivate themselves towards.”

He added that it is important to weigh the “relative demands on each of the shows” in the current environment. “Every show has very different challenges, but anything that is U.K. set and has infrastructure up and running, we are trying to build a mechanism that means that we can shoot this year,” said Roach.

Later in the Edinburgh TV Festival digital interview, Roach doubled down on his comments about looking for different kinds of dramas. “We have been very focused on high-end drama, and I think across the industry it would be good to see some more variance about the shapes of drama being made.”

In reaction to the financial challenges faced by the freelance workforce in the U.K. during the coronavirus shutdown of production, Roach said that Sky was also thinking longer term about making dramas that “have more of a staff structure…so new entrants to the industry aren’t always reliant on freelance wages and rhythms of work.”

The Sky exec also revealed that he is holding fortnightly calls with the heads of drama at other U.K. broadcasters so they can share good practice about the best way to get shows up and running. “We have to be collegiate,” stressed Roach.

Elsewhere in the Edinburgh TV Festival interview, hosted by its new creative director Stewart Clarke, Sky managing director of content Zai Bennett revealed that the broadcaster is set to announce a new head of factual commissioning in the next week as it prepares to launch new channels Sky Documentaries and Sky Nature on May 27.

Bennett said Sky Documentaries would look to commission 12 multipart series and 30 feature documentaries a year, and that Sky Nature would greenlight a couple of very high-end documentaries each year.