This session dug into the myth — or reality — of this “golden age of storytelling“. Participants included evp global production Carrie Stein of Entertainment One, CEO Chris Philip of Sierra/Engine Television, moderator Stewart Clark who serves as editorial director of TBI Magazine, and creative director Gub Neal of Artists Studio Management.
We started basic, with Clark asking whether the panelists truly believe this is a golden age of storytelling. The response was overwhelming.
“The opportunity around the world is like never before,” said Stein. “There’s more content, more shows being made between countries, moving from country to country… Film actors are coming to TV, and movie writers are seeing the opportunity to make stories (on TV) that you can’t on film.”
Some years ago, she observed, film agents were the cream of the crop and TV people were “the lowly stepsister”. “It’s really flipped,” she said.
Philip agreed: “Film talent are looking to invest heavily into TV. So many platforms have emerged, and they’re all looking for more content to up their subscriber base. That translates to more opportunity.”
Neal elaborated on the more philosophical aspects of this golden age.
“TV gets in your head. And when it’s really fantastic, it becomes addictive… In the last 5 years we’ve seen a benchmark in shows that people actually can’t stop talking about or watching. They go back and gorge them like chocolates. This is something that didn’t quite happen, even in the days of Dallas.”
“It’s not a different kind of greatness; it’s a greater diversity,” Neal elaborated. “We can watch rebooted shows that come from Scandinavia whereas we couldn’t before. And you can see the impact of shows as they start to travel the world.”
And it isn’t just shows traveling; it’s stars. “It just takes one or two people to move into a different area before everybody wants to do it,” said Stein. “Kevin Spacey doing House of Cards on Netflix was suddenly all right. It used to be that only HBO would attract film talent.”
Clark then asked about the pros and cons of “straight-to-series”, the act of greenlighting a show for an entire series run right away.
“It changes the financing when you do a straight-to-series show,” said Stein. “In this model the creative onus is on the independent producer,” who is now responsible both for producing high quality content and bringing the audience to it.
“Producers — you know, we have to deliver great TV with that model or we can’t do it again,” Stein said.
“You won’t get paid, either!” Neil quipped. He went on more seriously, “I don’t think that’s a bad thing if the quid pro quo is that you get a greater degree of influence over the piece.” It’s otherwise difficult to curate and facilitate the way you want to: “retain closeness to your material.”
At this point the participants shared recent projects that magnified what they believed storytelling today. Stein kicked off with a trailer for Welcome to Sweden, executive-produced by Amy Poehler and her brother Greg. The show follows Greg’s personal experience of falling in love with a Swedish girl and moving to Stockholm for her.
Love, obviously, is a universal concept that Stein knew would appeal to viewers. She also liked the fish-out-of-water element, and the fact that Poehler would attract an interesting cast — which it has, plus some famous ex-clients which agreed to make comedic cameos (such as Gene Simmons). The show was created for TV4 but has also been sold to NBC in the US, where it will launch concurrently.
“The bulk of the show is in English; it’s in Swedish when Swedes are talking to each other. But it organically works for more than one market,” said Stein, bringing to mind her point about shows traveling, and Neal’s point about the accessibility of new cultures in television today.
Stein also praised the bootstrapping production attitude she found in Sweden. She shared her experience of watching a shoot where she arrived early and found nothing — no trailers, cables or any other evidence of a set. “It was just a street,” she recalled. Some minutes later, “20 people on bicycles appeared and they were shooting the scene in the next 10 minutes.”
She concluded, “We can all take a lesson from foreign partners who make shows for considerably less money… they really do without the luxuries that we spend millions on.”
Philip followed up with a trailer for series Siberia, which he described as “essentially a fake reality show”: Under the impression that it’s a format à la Survivor, spectators bond with the contestants…
“…then it turns into Lost. And a little bit of X-Files,” Philip said mysteriously. In short? Contestants start to die. “There’s so much mystery, mythology around this area in Siberia.”
Philip recalled, “The film guy said, ‘Why don’t we just edit it down into a 2-hour movie and release it into a two-hour film?’ which was an option to recoup their money. But we all believed in the idea. It’s a unique concept that has never been done on television… it’s not a model you’ll see repeated often.” Although, he clarified with a nervous laugh, the network does want another one.
Philip also shared details about upcoming series Crossbones, which promises to explore “the true legend of Blackbeard” and enjoys an “enormous budget” (it also stars John Malkovich, which will help draw viewers).
The networks knows “they’re getting 10 episodes. It’s only straight-to-series orders,” said Philip, who lamented that often, when international partners find that something works well in their country, the show nonetheless gets canceled after four episodes.
“That doesn’t happen with straight-to-series.”
Neal talked about The Fall, written by Allan Cubitt, whom Artists Studio represents. The show follows a serial killer and the detective — played by Gillian Anderson of X-Files fame — trying to solve his crimes. (Watch our MIPCOM 2012 interview with Anderson here.)
The Fall’s first season drew ire from viewers, a reaction Neal attributed to the storytelling approach. The first five hours are spent studying the serial killer: watching him go home and do banal things, like give his kids tea. At the same time, viewers also follow the police as they investigate the first killing.
“It normalises a horrific tendency in a human being,” he said.
Cubitt spent three years reading books on serial killers and speaking with psychologists, Neal explained, to build something truthful. “And the show did completely freak people out, including myself,” he admitted, because it “strikes a chord in which you watch it and can’t escape by thinking ‘it’s just fantasy’. Of course it’s a fiction, but it’s modeled around something far closer to real-life cases than most drama stories follow.”
In short, what caused the most discomfort was the refusal to sensationalise what society considers monstrous. “If you follow reality, it’s far more disturbing and dramatic than anything you can do as a piece of burlesque,” Neal said.
Near the end, Stein mused, “For the first time, buyers are saying ‘bring us something we haven’t seen. Something visionary. Something that’s authored’. Unless you’re working with talent with a strong point of view, you won’t get on the air today.”
Neal agreed. “There’s an intimacy the audience can have with the storyteller,” a sense that ‘it’s my story’ as you watch, he said.
Stein also observed another first unique to this Golden Age: a shortage of top show-runners. “There’s so much television being made… the top people in the business are all working,” she said.
Which opens the door to new talent.
At some point, Clark asked whether there’s a disconnect between the great scripted shows that draw media attention and the procedurals that seem to do best globally. Neal addressed the point nicely:
“If you want to chase a bottom-end demographic, do it,” he said. But “if you’re going for the top-end, valuable demographic, you’ve got to be up there competing with the best. That means corraling the very best talent. That is something a number of us would probably never believe: the scale of talent you can attract into TV now. Frankly, anything’s possible.”