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From ‘Taboo’ to ‘The Young Pope,’ Peak TV’s International Invasion

Variety logo Variety 4/3/2017 Cynthia Littleton
© Provided by Variety

The Golden Age of television drama that has saturated screens during the past decade might soon be considered the Global Age of drama as well.

The volume and profile of international series co-production efforts between Hollywood’s studios and networks and their overseas counterparts has been steadily rising. For as much production activity as there is in the U.S. in this peak TV moment, the hunt for notable talent, fresh ideas and distinctive IP knows no borders.

“When we shop a show now we’re not only taking it to AMC and Showtime and FX, we’re starting to have a conversation with Canal Plus and TF1 and Channel 4,” says Zack Van Amburg, president of Sony Pictures Television with Jamie Erlicht. “Not only is it a huge world out there, but if you’re not thinking about what is going to work globally, you’re just being ignorant of the fact that shows need to work at scale. You’d better understand those markets.”

The interest in and appreciation for the creative infrastructure available outside the U.S. has been fueled by the fact that international licensing has become so crucial to the profitability of U.S. TV series. Studio execs say as much as 70% of profits from hourlong series come from sales outside the U.S. And the economic benefits of shooting overseas — from tax incentives to the strong dollar making budgets go farther than they would at home — and the strained talent pool in the U.S. have also been big factors.

Moreover, the growth of privately held commercial TV networks and now streaming platforms in Europe and other key territories has amped up the appetite for original series beyond direct imports from Hollywood.

The increase in the two-way traffic in the co-production arena has been a significant shift in the past few years, TV veterans say.

More projects with top-tier U.S. talent are getting their initial orders from networks outside the U.S. A case in point is Sony TV’s anthology series “Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams,” which was born at Channel 4 with Bryan Cranston and showrunner Ronald D. Moore and picked up in the U.S. and other markets by Amazon.

Among the high-profile wave of recent co-productions is HBO’s “The Young Pope,” which hails from Sky Atlantic and Canal Plus; FX’s Tom Hardy starrer “Taboo,” from the BBC; and AMC’s “Humans,” with Channel 4. HBO has recently set a deal with BBC for “Shibden Hall,” a costume drama from “Happy Valley” creator Sally Wainwright. Plenty more are on the way.

“Truth be told I make calls to the U.K. on my way to work every morning,” says Eric Schrier, president of original programming for FX Networks and FX Productions.

The level of collaboration on co-productions is higher, particularly among U.S.-U.K. ventures, because the partnerships are coming together earlier in the development process. Showtime teamed with Sky Atlantic on the John Ridley-produced drama “Guerrilla” soon after the project landed at the entertainment arm of the European satcaster.

“John and Idris [Elba] came in and pitched the idea of what was essentially the birth of a Black Lives Matter movement in Great Britain. The chance to work with the combined talents of those two was irresistible. We were thrilled to become a part of it,” says Gary Levine, Showtime’s president of programming.

In the past, Showtime generally shied away from co-production opportunities with foreign outlets because execs felt the quality control of what landed on screen was lacking. “Most international productions sadly are more deal-driven than creative-driven, so we’ve always resisted them,” Levine says.

But that began to change a few years ago with the comedy “Episodes,” a joint effort between Showtime and the BBC. The concept of the show — a British couple’s culture shock when their TV series is remade in the U.S. with Matt LeBlanc as its loutish star — made for an easy collaboration in getting the nuances of the humor just right for both sides of the Pond.

Showtime’s relationship with Sky Atlantic has blossomed in recent years as Sky has an output deal to carry Showtime-branded program blocks on its satellite TV platform serving the U.K., Ireland, Germany, Italy and Austria. Showtime and Sky Atlantic joined forces again last month on the limited series “Melrose,” starring Benedict Cumberbatch in an adaptation of the Patrick Melrose novel series by Edward St. Aubyn.

Working with Showtime and other U.S. partners has helped “introduce us to ways of thinking and talent relationships that raise the level of our programming ambitions,” says Anne Mensah, head of drama for Sky Atlantic. “In a digitally connected world, working with other broadcasters such as Showtime, HBO, Amazon and Canal Plus, allows our shows to reach worldwide audiences and creates bigger events for our customers. Shared budgets also ensure the filmmakers we work with can fully realize their ambitions on screen.”

With “Guerrilla,” which bows simultaneously in the U.S. and U.K. on April 16, Showtime’s creative execs were hands-on virtually from the inception.

“We worked on the scripts together, we cast it together with John and the producers, we looked at the cuts together — it’s a real joint creative venture,” Levine says. “There’s such a warm, collaborative spirit between us. It feels like a real partnership — except that the table read was 6,000 miles away.”

And the development pipeline goes both ways. Showtime recruited Sky Atlantic as a partner on the horror drama “Penny Dreadful,” which lensed in Ireland during its 2014-16 run.

FX’s Schrier credits the internet and social media for helping to bridge the historic cultural gap between what would play well Stateside versus what would work in the U.K. He cites “Taboo” as a good example. The show set in 1814 London about a man trying to unravel the dangerous mysteries of his dead father’s shipping business, has performed well for both networks and was recently renewed for a second season.

“With the proliferation of programming in the U.S., audiences became more easily adjusted to different types of shows,” Schrier says. “The chasm between British and American shows before has really started to shrink.”

“Taboo” came to FX via distributor Sonar Entertainment, after it had been ordered to series by the BBC. It was a gamble for FX to get on board at the time.

“Our biggest concern in the past about co-productions was that we wouldn’t see eye to eye on what the show was and make it difficult for showrunners,” he says. “Taboo” turned out to be “a tremendous collaboration,” with FX execs making the trek to the U.K. premiere and vice versa.

FX and its siblings in the Fox Networks Group have also taken steps to expand their internal development activity in the U.K. through a TV joint venture with Andrew Macdonald’s DNA Films. That process is starting to bear fruit.

And it’s not just the U.K. The Sky Italia arm of Sky, which FX parent company 21st Century Fox is in the process of acquiring in full, has delivered two impressive series in the past two years with “Young Pope” and crime drama “Gomorrah.”

“We’re talking to them all the time about projects,” Schrier says. “There’s so many different pools of talent and development that we can access now.”

Sony Pictures TV also leans on its local-language production operations in the U.K., Europe and Latin America for talent scouting and insights into opportunities at networks particularly in the U.K.

“Our points of contact with networks are not just about executives [in the U.S.] making more frequent trips,” Sony’s Van Amburg says. “We’re in daily conversations with the local networks.”

Drama series are the most lucrative options for co-productions, but comedies are becoming more commonplace. Sony TV is shepherding two half-hour projects with Channel 4 at present, the dark comedy “Morning Has Broken” and another from Paul Reiser and Steve Sater.

The pooling of resources also allows for richer material on the screen overall. The generous U.K. tax credit, the favorable exchange rate for the dollar in European markets and the lower talent pay scale across the board in the U.K. and Europe makes it attractive for ambitious productions.

The growth of the trans-Atlantic development business “is only going to mean good things for everybody,” Van Amburg says. “Viewers are going to continue to see big, creatively ambitious shows that might be scary for one partner to take on but when multiple partners are on board, it gives you such creative freedom.”

Leo Barraclough contributed to this report.

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