Gareth Neame’s Carnival Films was bought by NBCUniversal in 2008 for about £30 million (US$49 million). Since then the prodco has had a global hit on its hands in the form of Downton Abbey. As the period drama’s fifth season unfolds, Neame talks Downton and drama.
“Most agree it is a Golden Age of drama,” says Carnival Films CEO Gareth Neame. “In terms of the writing, producing and acting, the quality has never been better. There are new platforms, territories with new consumers and a globalisation of TV drama, as well as the box set and a ‘Netflix effect’ – there are not enough actors or crew in the world.”
From his London office, Neame adds: “There is so much drama being made that, more and more, the audience doesn’t know where to look, hence the power of having a really big hit. A dozen of the biggest shows become the most important. No-one is aiming at the middle any more.”
Neame is in the enviable position of shepherding Downton Abbey, the ITV and PBS period drama, into its fifth season.
“The ambition now has to be greater. You can’t have something that’s derivative that you hope will bring an audience, you need originality in the concept,” Neame says of producing drama in this Golden Age. “When there are such calls on people’s attention, it helps if the idea is really simple and then brilliantly done.”
The last run of Downton, season four, averaged 12 million viewers (consolidated ratings including catch-up viewers), making it the biggest drama on British TV. And to date, the show has 51 Emmy nominations, the most ever for a non-US series.
Neame concedes that Downton will not run forever. “Every show must come to an end,” he says. “We’re not going to make ten seasons, so it will run for somewhere between five and ten. We have to pick the right time; we’re the custodians of the show, and we want to get out at the right time.”
Talks are under way regarding season six, and with ten seasons set as the farthest the show will go, could the period piece move to the big screen? “We know theatrical is all about brands, and I can see the logic in a Downton movie,” Neame says.
Although Downton is a lavish production, the Carnival boss notes that its budget “is a fraction” of that for a House of Cards, Mad Men or Game of Thrones. It does, however, sit at the drama top table with those shows, with NBCUniversal International Television Distribution hitting the 200+ territory mark for global sales. Neame says Carnival is now the largest drama producer in the UK in revenue and profit terms, and having the backing of NBCU gives it an advantage, notably in the US. “If it doesn’t give us an edge, we are doing something wrong,” he says.
Neame adds that the global success of Downton coincides with a shift in the way viewers watch scripted TV, and that new platforms have played a key part in this change.
“People will now consume drama that is not from their region,” he says. “There’s a huge audience around the world for Sherlock or Broadchurch. Before Apple TV or Netflix the US audience wouldn’t have found [this type of show] – they would have been on BBC America, and the wider audience wouldn’t have seen them.”
The international market for drama is opening up in new ways, although producers need to retain a sense of perspective about the volumes of local programming the new platforms are greenlighting.
“Netflix and Amazon are a good opportunity,” Neame says, “but they are not buying from the UK in large amounts. We’ll see them do more British content to drive growth in the UK, but broadcast and cable are the cornerstones of our business.”
More important than Netflix and Amazon for UK-based content companies has been BSkyB’s arrival as a large-scale commissioner of original drama. “The effect of Sky on the market has been transformative,” Neame says. “The BBC and ITV were commissioning 80-90% of British drama and both working in the same way, but now Sky is here, they know that they may not get the project.”
As head of a US-owned, UK-based company, Neame also has a perspective on how content comes to the screen on either side of the pond. “The British system has a lot of inertia because there is no development cycle, and it can feel soulless,” he says. “The US system can be brutal, but it keeps the momentum going.”
Downton aside, Carnival’s other drama credits include Whitechapel, Hotel Babylon, Salting the Battlefield and Dracula, which played on NBC in the US. Period hit Downton takes up about 50% of Neame’s time; some of the remainder will be taken up with Carnival’s new commission, The Last Kingdom, based on the The Saxon Stories book series from Sharpe author Bernard Cornwell. It was ordered by the BBC and US cable net BBC America.
Production is getting under way on the eight-part drama, which will be set in 872 in an England largely occupied by the Vikings. The main protagonist will be Uhtred, the son of a Saxon nobleman who is raised by the Vikings. The show aims to combine real historic events with fictional characters.
“It’s a piece of deep history; it has something to say about where we come from,” Neame says. “As a British-led production, there will be history purists who want the story told in a certain way. However, I was impressed with The Tudors, an American-led show that was not restricted in that way, and that’s what we’re trying to do here: to be led by history, not restricted by it.”
He adds that The Last Kingdom is a very different proposition from Downton. “They are very different shows. Downton is essentially a gang show and soap opera about community, family and class. The Last Kingdom is about a central character on a quest.”