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Theme Festival - International Drama

Programming Profile

Making drama after a crisis


The international drama sector is coming back to life after the pandemic shutdown, but how has the market changed, what are buyers now looking for and what’s in the production pipeline?


Making scripted TV may not rank alongside healthcare or retail logistics as a priority during the current pandemic, but there’s no question international producers have worked miracles to keep crews and cast in work and ensure content supply for the coming year.


Vienna Blood
Vienna Blood

“Series like Departure, Vienna Blood and Bosch were suspended when the pandemic hit,” says Carlo Dusi, Red Arrow Studios International exec VP of commercial strategy, scripted. “But the producers worked out protocols that got them back on track. Covid-19 restrictions are tough, but the rushes I’ve seen convince me those shows will be delivered with the quality and ambition audiences are used to.”


Solutions haven’t just been about hygiene and testing, says Dusi, but a fundamental reappraisal of the production process. “On Vienna Blood, the producers reorganised the shooting schedule to minimise the risk of infection spread. One thing that has impressed me is the way rival studios have shared their experience about how to control the virus.”


Covid-19 has meant many shows are arriving late and at a higher cost. But Dusi says: “Broadcasters and platforms have been flexible. They recognise the challenges producers are facing and have been very supportive in working out a formula that keeps shows in production.”


Some territories have struggled more than others, with the US slower to get back into production than Europe or Asia. And there are signs that the second wave is causing more suspensions in territories such as Korea. But the prevailing view is that frontline units are now better prepared to deliver and that public bodies recognise the economic imperative in keeping shows alive. “We have 49 scripted shows in production around the world, including Mosquito Coast in Mexico,” says Fremantle’s president of global drama, Christian Vesper.


“Some have been delayed, but all of them have found ways to overcome the challenges of quarantine, testing, travel, production pods and so on. Season two of financial thriller Exit wrapped in Norway and Wildside finished production of Anna in Sicily. That show was really impressive because it involved a lot of child actors and big crowd scenes.”


Julie Meldal-Johnsen, ITV Studios exec VP of global content, echoes her peers. She says in-house and third-party scripted productions, including Line of Duty, McDonald & Dodds, Snowpiercer, Intruder and Bump, have either completed production or are filming now. “We were back up to around 80% of production by September with filming taking place in the UK, Canada, Australia and Ireland. My impression is that the volume of quality dramas in 2021 will be very strong.”


Meldal-Johnsen notes that governments have also played their part by launching production insurance schemes that have enabled shows to keep the cameras rolling. “The TV and insurance industries still need to find a solution, but for now governments in several leading productions markets are providing Covid-19 cover.”


It’s a broadly similar picture in Russia, where Alexandra Modestova, founder and CEO at Expocontent, says: “Production resumed from June, on condition of taking all the necessary precautions.”


The fact that producers have had summer and early autumn to shoot means there will be a good supply of drama into 2021, including keenly awaited titles, she adds. “For example, Fedor Bondarchuk finished shooting Psycho, his debut as series director, for There have also been more launches announced recently, like the new seasons of The Ordinary Woman and 257 Reasons To Live. Even if we go into lockdown again, the producers will have some drama in store for the next year.”


Ivan Samokhvalov, producer and managing partner at Russian prodco Sreda, says the isolation period “turned out to be the best time for creating good scripts.” Subsequently, the company has bounced back with five shows already.



“I’m really proud of two of them. Kitchenblock was filmed in a forest in the Tver region. We built a huge camp and had to relocate 50 kids and 20 adult actors there. This was quite a responsibility. Meanwhile, the show Caesar was filmed in extremely hard weather conditions in the Kaliningrad region on the Baltic Sea. The fact that actors and staff had to fly every day between Moscow and Kaliningrad was a risk and adventure, but we survived.”


The studio perspective is reinforced by Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos, who told analysts the streamer has completed 50 shows since the first lockdown and will wrap on 150 more by the end of 2020. He expects the 2021 slate to arrive on time “with a few minor exceptions.”


While 2021’s line-up looks solid, most agree that the bigger challenge is what happens now that commissioners are formulating plans for late 2021/early 2022. “The reality is that there will be less money,” says Greg Phillips, who launched his new distributor, Rainmaker Content, in April 2020. “Whether that’s because of lower ad revenues, fewer subscribers or the increased cost of Covid-era production, broadcasters and platforms are going to have to be innovative.”


Phillips believes coproduction will be one key area of activity. “This was already happening before the pandemic, but it is being accelerated now out of necessity. We’re going to see broadcasters coming on board properties that they might have passed on previously.”


Roskino CEO Evgeniya Markova says Russia’s production community is increasingly open to coproduction. “In June 2020, we expected around 20 applications from Russian producers to participate in the copro section of the Key Buyers Event: Digital Edition organised by Roskino. But we received almost 100 applications and 45 high-quality projects were presented to international partners during pitching.”


Markova says Russian producers understand “the rules of the coproduction game” better than ever. And she believes they can bring a lot to the table – even amid the Covid-19 crisis. “People have had more time to study projects and think over the opportunities presented by coproductions. As a majority coproducer, Russia can offer creators and actors, as well as strong industrial infrastructure in production, post-production and VFX,” she says.


“And as a minority partner, a number of steps have been taken from the governmental side. Russian producers can now support the coproduction of international projects with up to 10m rubles [US$130,000] with the help of funding by the Russian Ministry of Culture. This helps us to be attractive to partners.”


Babylon Berlin
Babylon Berlin

Others agree that there will be a shift towards coproduction, but expect it to focus on co-financing rather than physical copros in the short term. Mark Young, chairman of Synchronicity Films, says: “The challenges involved in moving talent around internationally and co-ordinating production across territories are significant. So there’s going to be a tendency to try and shoot as much as possible in countries that can provide a range of locations. There’s going to be a lot of interest in whether studios, backlots and VFX can provide solutions that take some of the risk out of production during the pandemic.”


Oliver Bachert, senior VP at Beta Film, reports similar disruption to major studios such as Red Arrow Studios, ITV Studios and Fremantle, with headline titles like Gomorrah and Hudson & Rex both affected by temporary suspensions. “But the overall picture is that producers and writers are finding ways to work. There have been some small adaptations to scripts where scenes clearly aren’t going to work – but teams find new approaches.”


Professor T
Professor T

Some normality has returned, as demonstrated by the fact the UK version of Professor T has just started shooting in Cambridge, for ITV, and a fourth season of Beta Film hit Babylon Berlin will go into production next spring. “It is right to say that broadcasters are more open to co-financing,” says Bachert, “but they’re also going look at proven franchises. While money is tight, they are going to be interested in renewing established shows or perhaps formatting them.” This, perhaps, may explain why US premium cabler Showtime has chosen 2021 to revive its iconic series Dexter, and also why ITV Studios is reported to be exploring the potential for Schitt’s Creek format deals.


In terms of content trends, Bachert says broadcasters are keen to secure series for a younger demo that is unable to go to clubs or cinemas. “That’s good for us because we have series like Skam, adapted in several territories, Wild Republic and Alive & Kicking.”


Jonathan Ford, MD of Abacus Media Rights, a new distribution company that launched during lockdown, makes a similar point, having launched supernatural drama series Trickster to the international


market. “Trickster is an irreverent coming-of-age story,” he says, “but dig deeper and the story explores issues of identity, cultural heritage and family legacy as seen through an Indigenous perspective.” A CBC Canada original, the six-part series has been sold to SyFy in the UK, Globoplay Brazil and KinoPoisk (Yandex) in Russia, among others.


Synchronicity’s Young says there is no evidence that scripted buyers have turned their backs on the kind of creative ambition that fueled the market pre-Covid. A key project on the company’s slate, for example, is an adaption of Shankari Chandran’s novel Song of The Sun God, coproduced with Australia’s Dragonet Films. “We’ve really drilled down on development and built a diverse slate. We have four shows in paid development and hope to be in production early next year.”


Anke Stoll, Keshet International VP of acquisitions and coproductions, says her company continues to attract interest in hard-hitting content like Furia, which explores the world of right-wing extremism. The company is also in production on an English-language adaptation of thriller False Flag for Apple TV+ under the title Suspicion.


“But at the same time, there is growing demand for light-hearted content and series that offer escapism – which could mean anything from period to sci-fi. We’re currently adapting Israeli black comedy Stockholm for Germany.”



Phillips agrees that there is demand for comedy, having secured strong international sales for Staged, a humorous look at the challenges of creating a drama in lockdown, starring David Tennant and Michael Sheen. However, he warns that “the fact that platforms are searching for light-hearted doesn’t make it easy to deliver.”


Nicky Davies Williams, CEO at DCD Rights, agrees with Stoll that the search for escapist content doesn’t seem to have reduced the appetite for crime and thrillers. Her company raised significant finance and secured distribution rights for season two of My Life is Murder, a production that moved from Australia to New Zealand due to Covid restrictions. “When I look at the kind of ideas coming across my desk I see a real trend towards shows like Killing Eve or I May Destroy You. But buyers are also looking for quality, safe returnable mysteries.”


Davies Williams acknowledges that production costs have risen, but believes one important line of innovation has been “producers seeking to make shows at much lower budgets. I’m seeing some powerful dramas, especially in daytime, where the quality of acting and writing means less money doesn’t have to be a negative.”


The Pembrokeshire Murders
The Pembrokeshire Murders

Meldal-Johnsen says it’s important to keep in mind that some trends were coming anyway – irrespective of Covid-19. One that she picks up on is growing interest in half-hour dramas, “because they offer audiences a bingeable alternative to the longer more immersive formats.” She also highlights continued demand for true crime, represented in ITV Studio’s catalogue by The Pembrokeshire Murders (3×60’ for ITV).


Interest in non-English-language drama is another trend that has been gathering pace during-Covid-19, boosted by the slow US recovery and the prospect of gaps in 2022. Meldal-Johnsen says “the taste for non-English-language content is good for shows like Romulus, made by Italian producer Cattleya, which has been picked up for 44 territories.”


Vesper makes a similar point, saying that multi-language spy thriller No Man’s Land has secured a more prominent slot on Hulu than might have been expected. Coproduced by Arte France and Hulu, the eight-parter has also just been secured in multiple markets by streaming platform StarzPlay. In a similar vein, Sky Original series Das Boot, produced by Bavaria Fiction, has just been greenlit for a third season.


Expocontent’s Modestova says Russia is benefiting from this trend: “People are get more interested in Russian drama because it has become better and the industry is able to provide originals for global audiences. A good example is To The Lake, from 1-2-3 Production, a thriller that premiered as a Netflix Original this month.”


Russian noir is certainly selling well, but it’s not the only editorial trend out of Russia, says Modestova. “There’s also demand for optimistic and transformational stories. 257 Reasons To Live is a light, cheerful, very human story, which is also in demand during the pandemic.”


Other trends that can’t be pegged to Covid-19 include a growing commitment within the industry to hitting diversity targets, in front of and behind camera, says Synchronicity’s Young. Netflix’s Haunting of Bly Manor was a text-book example of the way diverse casting can be comfortably integrated into a traditional form of storytelling. And ViacomCBS Networks International has unveiled plans to expand its No Diversity, No Commission policy.


Covid-19 has deflected attention from the streamer wars, to some extent. Disney+ and HBO Max’s decision to hold back content for their SVoD services has led some content owners to argue this will result in opportunities to sell scripted content into free and pay TV. But there’s an interesting parallel trend, with AVoD players likes NBC’s Peacock and ViacomCBS-owned Pluto TV growing rapidly. Pluto’s acquisition of Netflix thriller Narcos from Gaumont for the US suggests an interesting new dynamic is emerging in scripted sales.