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C21’s 2021 News Review: The biggest stories in drama this year

The final part of our review of the biggest stories across television’s four main genres in 2021 focuses on the scripted business, with South Korea the hot territory and Squid Game the big hit.

Squid Game was watched by pretty much everybody

Squid Game
It’s a brave soul who tries to predict where the year’s biggest drama hit will come from in advance. Craig Mazin moving from movies like The Hangover to crowd-wowing Sky and HBO miniseries Chernobyl was pretty leftfield, but it had nothing on 2021’s breakout hit – Netflix’s South Korean drama Squid Game.

Netflix reported 4.4 million subscriber additions in the third quarter, giving it almost 214 million global subs in total, as its revenue grew 16% year-on-year to US$7.5bn. This was partly due to the popularity of Squid Game, which achieved unprecedented streaming success and become one of the most discussed series in recent memory. Netflix says the show has become its biggest ever, with a “mind-boggling” 142 million member households watching more than two minutes of the series during its first four weeks.

Co-CEO Ted Sarandos said Netflix’s Korean commissioning team, which greenlit the show a couple of years ago, had predicted it would be one of the most watched Netflix shows of the year in Korea, but had no idea it would capture people’s imaginations globally. “[The creator spent] 10 years trying to sell the show. Our team recognised something that nobody else did and created an environment for that creator to make a great show. How something can go viral is really hard to predict, but it’s super-powerful when it happens,” said Sarandos.

Mind you, when we say ‘difficult to predict,’ the year did begin with Netflix investing a further US$500m into South Korean content. The streamer, which started working with Korean filmmakers and talent in 2016, has ordered more than 80 original Korean shows and films since its first Korean original, Kim Eun-Hee’s zombie thriller Kingdom.

Cynthia Nixon, Sarah Jessica Parker and Kristin Davis in And Just Like That…

HBO Max rolls out
WarnerMedia’s HBO Max arrived in 39 territories in Latin America and the Caribbean in June, becoming available beyond the US for the first time. Its content line-up includes shows from fellow WarnerMedia-owned brands HBO, Warner Bros, Max Originals, DC Comics and Cartoon Network, and the international roll-out was spearheaded by a reunion of classic sitcom Friends. Recent launches include Sex & The City follow-up And Just Like That…

HBO Max has also committed to producing 100 local originals in Latin America over the next two years, while new Warner Bros feature films will be made available on the platform 35 days after their cinematic release in the region. HBO Max’s launch in the new territories, where the streamer is overseen by Latin America general manager Luis Duran, followed the introduction of a lower-priced, ad-supported subscription tier in the US earlier that month. It later rolled out into Brazil and Mexico.

A roll-out in Europe is now underway, although an existing deal with Sky will delay its arrival in the UK, Italy and Germany until 2025. HBO Max started the year by revealing a leadership team in EMEA and ended it posting mixed subscription figures across the US and international markets. A merger between WarnerMedia and Discovery, along with its Discovery+ streamer, is pencilled in for mid-2022.

Jane Tranter (left) and Julie Gardner of Bad Wolf

Bad Wolf bares teeth
Sony Pictures Television (SPT) confirmed its long-rumoured purchase of Cardiff-based Bad Wolf, the production company behind BBC and HBO dramas His Dark Materials and Industry, in December.

SPT has taken a majority stake in the business in a deal that includes the Wolf Studios Wales sound stage facility in Cardiff and Bad Wolf’s 30% stake in Bad Wolf America (BWA). Financial terms of the deal, which ends the Sky, HBO and Access Entertainment minority investments in Bad Wolf, were not disclosed. Bad Wolf was founded in 2015 by Jane Tranter and Julie Gardner. Its other programming has included A Discovery of Witches (Sky), The Night Of (HBO) and I Hate Suzie (Sky).

The Sony deal followed the news in September that Bad Wolf had joined BBC Studios as a coproducer on Doctor Who, with Russell T Davies returning to the long-running sci-fi series as showrunner 16 years after he last held the role.

While Davies’ return may be good news for Who fans, his insistence that bad Wolf board the series as a condition of his involvement is not great for BBC Studios. At a time when the UK pubcaster is facing swathing content cuts to shave another £1bn (US$1.33bn) from its budget, the transfer of control of one of its best-known drama series to bad Wolf could cost it up to £40m in commercial revenue for every 10 new episodes made, according to The Times.

Jane Millichip at C21’s Content London earlier this month

Changes at Sky Studios
In March, Jane Millichip was promoted to chief content officer for Sky Studios across Europe. Millichip was appointed chief commercial officer at Sky Studios when the European pay TV broadcaster’s production arm launched in June 2019. In July 2020, she expanded her role to become chief content officer, responsible for editorial activities at Sky Studios in the UK, including in-house and indie development.

This was followed in May this year by Cécile Frot-Coutaz’s appointment as CEO of Sky Studios, replacing the retiring Gary Davey. A former CEO of global production company Fremantle, Frot-Coutaz sits on Sky’s group executive board.

Earlier this month, Sky Studios said it was adding oversight of its German operations to Nils Hartmann’s existing Italian responsibilities. Hartmann, previously senior director of original production for Sky Italia, is now senior VP for Sky Studios Deutschland and Italia. The German exec leads the development, commissioning and production of original dramas and comedies for Sky Deutschland while retaining his responsibility for producing scripted originals for Sky Italia.

Hartmann continues to report to Millichip while working closely with exec VP of programming for Sky Deutschland Elke Walthelm and exec VP of programming for Sky Italia Antonella d’Errico, who maintain overall responsibility for Sky’s content offering in Germany and Italy respectively. Hartmann’s promotion followed the departure of Marcus Ammon, who was senior VP of original production prior to his move to Bavaria Fiction in June.

On the broadcast side, Jeremy Darroch, the European pay TV broadcaster’s CEO, resigned in January, with Dana Strong moving from parent company Comcast to replace him. Sky also brought its UK, Italian and German acquisitions teams together in one hub, led by group director of acquisitions Sarah Wright, in May.

Reese Witherspoon in Little Fires Everywhere

Disney duo’s start-up says Hello Sunshine
Reese Witherspoon’s prodco Hello Sunshine was sold for a reported US$900m to a new media company led by former Disney executives Tom Staggs and Kevin Mayer in August.

Legally Blonde star Witherspoon and Hello Sunshine CEO Sarah Harden will continue to run the LA-based firm, joining the board of the as-yet-unnamed media company, which has been backed by private-equity giant Blackstone Group. According to the Wall Street Journal, Blackstone will spend more than US$500m to purchase shares from these existing investors, while Witherspoon and other investors will put the remaining equity in Staggs and Mayer’s new company.

Hello Sunshine, which focuses on female-led content, is behind series including HBO’s thriller Big Little Lies, Apple’s The Morning Show and Hulu’s Little Fires Everywhere. Its unscripted slate includes home-organisation series The Home Edit with Clea Shearer and Joanna Teplin for Netflix and upcoming competition series My Kind of Country for Apple TV+.

Noel Clarke in Viewpoint

Noel Clarke torpedoes career
Actor Noel Clarke was suspended by Bafta and booted from a lucrative partnership with Sky after allegations of sexual harassment, verbal abuse and bullying were published by The Guardian in April.

Twenty women spoke out against the actor after Bafta presented him with its Outstanding British Contribution to Cinema award, variously accusing him of sexual harassment, unwanted touching or groping, sexually inappropriate behaviour and comments on set, professional misconduct, taking and sharing sexually explicit pictures and videos without consent and bullying between 2004 and 2019.

Clarke rose to prominence after landing a role in cult BBC sci-fi series Doctor Who in 2005, before breaking into film with the Hood trilogy (Kidulthood, Adulthood, Brotherhood), which he starred in, wrote and directed. The Guardian report includes allegations that Clarke covertly filmed naked auditions of Brotherhood actor Jahannah James for the film Legacy, and later boasted about the footage and showed it to others.

When the Guardian story was published, Clarke was starring in Sky police procedural Bulletproof, which he-co-created and produces through his London-based, All3Media-backed Unstoppable Film and Television outfit, and ITV police drama Viewpoint. Sky canned the fourth season of Bulletproof and published a new raft of safeguarding measures in June, before its content MD Zai Bennett addressed the industry’s cultural issues in August. ITV, meanwhile, pulled the final episode of Viewpoint from its linear schedule.

CJ ENM’s Oscar-winning South Korean film Parasite

CJ ENM buys Endeavor Content’s scripted business
Last month, South Korean entertainment company CJ ENM acquired an 80% stake in the scripted division of LA-based studio Endeavor Content for US$775m.

Endeavor Content will retain 20% of the scripted side of the business, in addition to retaining the non-scripted division, as well as certain documentary and film sales and financial consulting services. Endeavor’s Graham Taylor and Chris Rice will continue to lead the studio as co-CEOs. The two companies anticipate the deal will close early in the first quarter of 2022.

The deal means Endeavor has fulfilled its February agreement with the Writers Guild of America (WGA) that required it to reduce its stake in its scripted content division to 20%. This came after WGA raised concerns over talent agencies prioritising their production interests over those of the talent they represent.

CJ ENM, best known for Oscar-winning movie Parasite and unscripted formats such as I Can See Your Voice, said the deal was the largest M&A move for the company, adding that, through the acquisition, it plans to “solidify its presence in the global market and content distribution channels.”

The Seoul-based firm has previously invested in US studio DreamWorks and acquired Nordic distributor Eccho Rights in 2018. It also took a stake in US prodco Skydance Media last year and is making a US version of Parasite for HBO with that company.

Wattpad’s Aron Levitz

Naver to acquire Wattpad for $600m
Naver, the South Korean internet conglomerate that owns digital comics platform Webtoon, acquired Canada-based digital storytelling platform Wattpad in January. As part of the US$600m deal, Wattpad will be aligned with Webtoon, with the aim being to bring more new, diverse voices to screens and bookstores around the world.

Wattpad was set up in 2006 as a platform for writers to publish literary works, and many of those stories have been picked up for TV and film. The boss of its studio arm, Aron Levitz, told C21 last year it was eyeing local streaming companies to partner with, having already teamed up with global giants such as Netflix, Hulu and HBO for films and series based on its stories.

Clockwise from top left: Brian Robbins, Josh Sapan, Kelly Campbell, Kelly Day, Stephen Mowbray, Superna Kalle

Big names doing big things
As ever, there were plenty of big-name executives on the move in 2021. Paramount chairman and CEO Jim Gianopulos stepped down as head of Paramount Pictures, with ViacomCBS’s kids and family entertainment president and Awesomeness TV founder Brian Robbins set to take the reins, in September. Long-serving ViacomCBS exec Julie McNamara left her role as head of programming for SVoD service Paramount+ after 15 years at the company in May.

AMC Networks president and CEO Josh Sapan stood down after 26 years atop the US entertainment company to become its executive vice-chairman, with former Showtime boss Matthew Blank becoming interim CEO, in August. By September, Ed Carroll, the longtime chief operating officer at AMC Networks, has also ended his 34-year spell at the New York-headquartered entertainment group. Chief financial officer Christina Spade added the position to her remit last month.

Also in November, John Morayniss, the former head of Entertainment One (eOne)’s television business, and fellow former eOne execs Patrice Theroux Nelson Kuo-Lee and Jeff Lynas, co-founded new venture Blink Studios, backed by Endeavor Content. A Canadian entity headquartered in Toronto and with offices in LA, Blink will focus on developing and producing scripted and unscripted programming for the international market.

Mark Fennessy, the former co-CEO of Endemol Shine Australia, launched Sydney-based production outfit Helium in October. Helium will focus on premium scripted and factual content, with a broad slate ranging from music programming to female-led projects. Its titles include previously announced true-life crime drama Last King of the Cross for ViacomCBS-owned streamer Paramount+.

Cameron Roach, outgoing director of drama at European pay TV broadcaster Sky, launched production company Rope Ladder Fiction in September. The Manchester-based indie will focus on providing training and development opportunities to new talent.

Nordic Entertainment (NENT) Group poached Stephen Mowbray, head of acquisitions at Swedish pubcaster SVT, for a head of series and kids role at its Viaplay streaming service in October. NENT has been re-skewing its business to focus on an originals mission and the global roll-out of Viaplay, with launches of the streamer in the US and the Netherlands unveiled as the year wound down.

Hulu president Kelly Campbell departed the Disney-owned streamer in October and quickly resurfaced in the same role at NBCUniversal-owned SVoD service Peacock.

US production company Legendary combined its domestic and international arms under the management of former Starz CEO Chris Albrecht in February.

Christian Rank, head of drama at Danish public broadcaster DR, stepped down after three years in the role in October, with an unusually frank statement from the broadcaster saying that the halting of production on Rank’s Leonora Christina commission had created “turbulence” and a “deadlock,” adding that it had been decreed that a fresh start was needed for the drama department.

US tech giant Amazon hired ViacomCBS Networks International’s president of streaming, Kelly Day, for a newly created role at its Prime Video SVoD service in December.

Finally, Lionsgate-owned US cablenet Starz promoted Superna Kalle to president of international networks in July as it continues to grow its business outside the States. Kalle was previously VP of international digital networks at the company, having joined in 2018 to lead the international roll-out of streaming service StarzPlay.

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