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Miniseries strike back

A few years ago, it looked like scripted miniseries were heading for the scrapheap. With networks favouring TV movies, returning series and fast-moving factual entertainment franchises, miniseries started to look expensive to produce and hard to schedule. Things are very different now, reports Andy Fry.

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Shine International’s Utopia

 

A run of well-received projects such as Rome, Pillars Of The Earth, Mildred Pierce, Parade’s End, Hatfield & McCoys, Treasure Island and The Kennedys has led to a resurgence in miniseries. To this list we can also add Mark Burnett’s The Bible, which has just scored epic ratings for US cable network History, registering 14.8 million total viewers for episode one.

“I don’t think it makes sense to build your entire drama slate around miniseries,” says FremantleMedia Enterprises CEO David Ellender, “but as part of a portfolio they clearly make sense.”

Ellender says a number of factors have contributed to the revival of the miniseries. “From a financial point of view you have a lot more potential buyers. US cable networks, international channels and online/on-demand platforms all want events that make them stand out, which means it’s possible to put the budget together. From a creative perspective, the miniseries is popular with theatrical talent, which is coming over into TV more than it has ever done before. For producers, writers and directors, there’s the opportunity to spend more time telling a story. For on-screen talent, miniseries don’t take up much of their schedule – which means there isn’t a conflict between film and TV commitments.”

A range of titles on FME’s slate back up Ellender’s thesis: “Hit and Miss from AbbottVision, which starred Chloe Sevigny as a transsexual contract killer, was Sky Atlantic’s first original drama and has gone on to sell to 147 countries,” says Ellender. “New projects include a TV adaptation, with Pukeko Pictures, of the best-selling novel The Maid, based on the story of Joan of Arc. We’re also working with Headline Pictures and Scott Free on the development of The Drivers, a series based on the 24 hour motor race in Le Mans during the 1950s/1960s.”

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ITV Studios General Entertainment’s Mrs Biggs

 

Other high-profile titles on FME’s miniseries slate include Hitlerland, which is being written for TV by Marshall Herskovitz, (The Last Samurai, Love and Other Drugs) and The Man In The High Castle, which is being adapted from the Philip K. Dick novel by Craig Pearce, (Romeo+Juliet, Moulin Rouge). “I think what’s interesting about titles like these is that they show how ambitious producers and broadcasters are becoming with their subject-matter, because they know they have to be distinctive.”

Stewart Till, CEO of Sonar Entertainment, has placed a lot of emphasis on miniseries in the last year or two. Like Ellender, he says part of the genre’s return to form is down to the quality of talent now working in the sector. “We’ve had a lot of sales success with a group of five miniseries which we call our ‘Disaster Pack’ collection. What sets them apart is that they combine great cast and production talent with really strong visual effects.”

The titles, which have just been picked up by cable channel Reelz in the US, include Cat. 8, an end of the world disaster drama starring Matthew Modine (The Dark Knight Rises); “Cast of that calibre is attractive to broadcasters because it enables them to create events for their schedule,” explains Till. “And it creates a virtuous circle. Once the star talent has come over to miniseries, it attracts better writers. That means better scripts and so on.”

After the success of its ‘disastertainment’ titles, Sonar is looking to create new packages of miniseries. “But that’s not the only area we’re looking at,” he adds. “I think there is demand for more standalone miniseries, so we are looking to get another 2-3 projects up and running that are distinctive. We’re trying to acquire the rights to some novels and expect announcements on that quite soon.”

While the need for schedule-defining event programming is clearly the big driver in the return of the miniseries, there are other factors working in the format’s favour.

Simon Vaughan, CEO of high-end drama specialist Lookout Point, believes that the international market is getting better at making shows that work for multiple territories. Citing the example of Parade’s End, he says: “High-end miniseries usually require funding from a number of partners. In the past, that sometimes led to productions that were compromised by the financial deals behind-the-scenes, the so-called Europuddings. These days, the commercial partners are much better at letting the creative vision take the lead.”

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Beta Film-distributed ZDF series Hotel Adlon

 

This view is endorsed by James Baker, managing director of Red Arrow Entertainment UK, who says “the number of partners you need to finance these projects has increased in the last 3-to-5 years, but there’s also a greater understanding that they all want the same thing. If you take an example like our spy thriller miniseries Restless, you have the BBC, Sundance in the US and ProSiebenSat1 all willing to back William Boyd’s creative talent. The result is a strong drama that is also selling well through distribution.”

As a former channel chief, Baker was controller of Sky One, he acknowledges that there is a growing desire among network controllers to air big event miniseries. But that doesn’t means they are easy to get made. “It’s challenging to get a group of partners that share a creative vision and want to co-fund all at the same time. So any miniseries idea needs to be really strong and to be backed up by a great package, cast, producer, writer etc. You have to remember that marketing miniseries to audiences is expensive for broadcasters, so they’ll only get involved if they’re convinced by the idea’s impact.”

ITV Studios Global Entertainment MD Maria Kyriacou gives a balanced appraisal of the genre. “We like having them as part of the portfolio, but you’re talking about dramas that need to be so special that the broadcaster will suspend the usual schedule,” she says.

High-end examples to have come through the ITVS GE catalogue include Titanic, “a genuine global event that sold around the world to free to air broadcasters. The combination of the Titanic name, the hundredth anniversary and writer Julian Fellowes gave broadcasters that good reason why to stop their schedules.”

Miniseries can also come in at a more modest level, she adds. “Take Mrs Biggs, that was a lower budget miniseries designed to have a high impact in two territories, the UK and Australia, where the story of the great train robbery was well-known. Everywhere else it was sold not as an event but as a well-crafted drama.”

Kyriacou says miniseries are benefiting from the fact that the marquee value of feature films on free TV has declined because audiences have so many opportunities to see them before that window. But the drawback is that broadcasters and distributors want successful scripted shows to return – ideally for a run of series. “This is giving rise to open-ended miniseries,” she says, “dramas that can be marketed like events but which have enough richness in their stories and characters to return. An example in our catalogue is Rectify, a six-hour drama about a man sent to jail for killing someone but later released because the evidence is inclusive. The drama focuses on the week after he returns to his home town but has enough unfinished business it could return.”

This approach is increasingly widespread, adds Content Television president Greg Phillips. “We have properties like Thorne, Line Of Duty, The Fall and The Bletchley Circle, which started out with the feel of miniseries but with the hope that they might return. They’ve got to stand up on their own merits but it makes a lot of sense to bring them back in the audience likes them.”

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According to Phillips, Line of Duty will come back with new characters and Bletchley will have a new twist. “The benefit is that audiences are familiar with the set up. But if there’s a challenge in this approach it’s that the creative bar is set higher every time.”

Endemol Worldwide Distribution’s CEO Cathy Payne has tended to focus on returning series but she also sees a role for miniseries in her drama slate. “We have an eight hour miniseries called Gallipoli about the famous World War One battle. That’s a big-budget production we’re doing with Channel 9 Australia to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the battle. On a smaller scale there’s Howzat!, about the start of Kerry Packer’s world cricket series in 70s. That has sold well in cricket-loving territories.”

While Payne sees returning series as a better long-term investment, she says a miniseries can grow into something more substantial once the market has seen it: “With the market’s interest in scripted formats, there is the potential for a miniseries to be adapted in a different format somewhere else. That’s what happened with Low Winter Sun, a three-parter on Channel 4 UK, which was picked up by US cable channel AMC as a series.”

Betafilm managing director Eric Welbers is another exec who sees a market for miniseries but doesn’t want to exaggerate it. He says: “There is a need for them, but I wouldn’t say they are more important than TV movies or returning series. If there’s a challenge it is that broadcasters in different markets have different slots, so you can find yourself having to make tailored versions for them.”

Echoing ITV, Betafilm has some high-end international projects and some more local examples. In the latter category are titles like Hotel Adlon, a ZDF miniseries that charts the story of Germany from pre World War One until post World War Two through the eyes of the people who work and stay at the famed Berlin hotel. “It’s got the same feel as Downton Abbey or Upstairs Downstairs,” explains Welbers. “It’s the kind of thing that will work in female-skewing slot in France, Italy and Spain and possibly even the UK.”

Also interesting is The Tower, which looks at the issues faced by a family living in East Germany before the Berlin Wall came down. “I think there is growing interest in this important period of European history,” says Welbers. “In our catalogue we also have a miniseries from HBO Europe called Burning Bush, which looks at the story of a student in Prague who set fire to himself in 1969, the year after the Prague Spring. The story follows his family’s effort to clear his name and find the truth.”

As for the more ambitious end of the scale, Welbers cites Generation War, a ZDF-backed property which he says will be “like Band Of Brothers from a German perspective” and Baron Munchhausen, a retelling of the classic tale made famous by Terry Gilliam’s movie. “Also coming up are big budget event dramas based on the life of the composer Wagner and on the story of Alexander The Great. The Alexander project will be shot in English and is coproduced by ZDF Enterprises, Beta Film and Gruppe 5 Filmproduktion. The showrunner is Michael Hirst, who was responsible for The Tudors, Elizabeth and Camelot.”

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Red Arrow Entertainment’s Restless

 

While the primary rationale for financing miniseries is to get stand-out TV events, one reason they fell out of favour was the fact that broadcasters were worried about audiences missing an episode and losing interest. This is no longer such a problem because of the growth of on-demand, says BBC Worldwide director of drama Caroline Torrance: “On-demand is helping miniseries and serials because it means audiences can store up episodes and watch them in one go. They’re not put off watching them because of the risk of missing an episode.”

The biggest miniseries to come out of the BBC in recent times was Parade’s End. But in the next few months, BBC Worldwide’s slate will showcase a couple of edgy productions, says Torrance. The first is Southcliffe, a four-parter that tells the story of a fictional English market town devastated by a spate of shootings which take place over a single day. Produced by Warp Films for UK free-to-air broadcaster Channel 4, it explores the tragedy through the eyes of a journalist and those closest to the victims. The second title is Top Of The Lake, a UK/Australia/NZ coproduction, which sees feted director Jane Campion turn her attention to TV. One of the most highly-anticipated productions of 2013, it centres on the disappearance of a pregnant 12 year-old and has already been picked up by Pay TV network Showtime US and MNet in South Africa.

The Showtime pick-up is a reminder of how important the US cable networks are in sustaining the miniseries format. Over at HBO, for example, the format continues to play a central role in the schedule, with Parade’s End about to air.

Arguably the biggest news to come out of HBO, however, is that it is developing its third World War Two miniseries after Band Of Brothers and The Pacific. The new drama, to be exec produced by Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg, has no title yet. But it will be based on Donald L. Miller’s non-fiction tome Masters of the Air: America’s Bomber Boys Who Fought the Air War Against Nazi Germany.

While HBO remains the top dog in miniseries, it’s facing more and more competition as History’s The Bible demonstrates. Starz, for example, is following up titles like The Pillars of The Earth and Spartacus: Gods of the Arena with The White Queen, based on Philippa Gregory’s book, and Harem, a project about the Ottoman empire, which is currently in development.

Also of interest is the growing influence of Reelz, the network that came to prominence when it aired Muse Entertainment’s The Kennedys miniseries. Now the two have partnered up again on a second Kennedys project. This time, Muse has acquired the rights to J. Randy Taraborrelli’s book After Camelot, a personal history of the Kennedy family from 1968 to the present. It is co-developing a series based on the book with Reelz. “With The Kennedys miniseries we saw a tremendous response to powerful storytelling along with an intense interest in this family,” says Stan E. Hubbard, CEO of Reelz. “The Kennedy family is truly a part of the fabric of America and we’re thrilled to once again work with Muse to bring our viewers this fascinating and continuing story.”

Politics is also the focus of Death Of A Pilgrim, a miniseries from Swedish public broadcaster SVT, which will be distributed by ZDF Enterprises. The story looks at the events surrounding the assassination of Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme in 1986. Although the case has never been solved, Death Of A Pilgrim sees a fictional crime team revisit the killing to see if they can shed new light on the story.

ZDFE does well with Scandinavian drama – and Fred Burcksen, chief operating officer of ZDFE, believes Pilgrim can do as well as other top Scandi titles: “Scandinavian crime is a global asset that works well in markets as diverse as the US, Australia and Asia. I can see it fitting well into late-night free-to-air slots or on Pay TV.”

While miniseries mostly focus on historic eras or events, there are occasional exceptions. An example is Channel 4’s new six-parter Utopia. Distributed by Shine International, the story is a futuristic conspiracy thriller based on a graphic novel called The Utopia Experiments.

Incorporating a multi-platform experience from digital agency TH_NK, it’s one example of how the miniseries is re-inventing itself to stay relevant to audiences.