Talk to the drama producers about how Covid-19 affected their development roster and one thing becomes obvious: While a few existing series have quickly altered the storylines to accommodate the pandemic, there is no rush to feed new programs with this particular topic. Unsurprisingly, another consensus also emerges: there is a strong focus of development on projects that are variously entertaining, funny, romantic, escapist and upbeat.
The public endured the pandemic for almost 18 months, so, according to thought, they will be less inclined to seek out pessimistic or brooding content in the (hopefully) post-Covid-19 world. “There’s little room for dreary at the moment,” says Nicolas Brown, director of film and television at Neal Street Productions, producers of Call the midwife and Britannia.
For example, Neal Street has just opted for the first novel by Kirsty Capes Negligent, a coming-of-age story about two teenage girls set in 1999 in a housing estate. âTotally happy and funny,â says Brown.
Das Botte Executive producer Moritz Polter, who is launching a premium scripted label in Germany with ITV Studios, has also put more emphasis on lighter and more entertaining content. âWhen we talk to streamers or broadcasters, we have a feeling that lighter material would get the green light faster,â he says.
Brown, however, points out that the pandemic will not fundamentally change the nature of many of the dramas developed by the Indies. The development process is long, he notes, and most independents are still working on ideas they had before the Covid-19 outbreak. Likewise, dramatic staples such as real crime, real life stories, and police procedures will always remain in demand.
In addition, Lorenzo Mieli, CEO of The Apartment Pictures, based in Rome, co-producer of The new pope, My brilliant friend and that of Luca Guadagnino We are who we are, believes that the experiences of dark times do not necessarily lead the public to seek lighter tariffs, citing the success of Italian neo-realism in the 1940s and 1950s in its home country. “You would have expected people after WWII and fascism to have wanted comedies, but neo-realist cinema was the most successful form of entertainment at the time,” he says. .
The pandemic has, however, encouraged producers to subtly rethink what they are developing as they assess public mood after the lockdown. For some, this redesign comes amid concerns that audiences might want to break away from their screens after eating content while stuck at home.
Alice Tyler, Director of Development at Chernobyl Producer Sister believes audiences are struggling with fatigue and content overload, making it harder for shows to break through. In his opinion, dramas must have something to say and must âannounce themselvesâ as different from everything else. âYou have to choose what you develop and it has to be the best of the best,â she says.
Others wonder what the post-pandemic world will look like and, more specifically, how to reflect life in contemporary dramas. While audiences may not want to watch a drama about Covid-19, should contemporary scripts take place in a world where people can wear masks out of habit? Or should they ignore everything related to the pandemic altogether? Will the post-pandemic era be a hedonistic replay of the jazz age of the 1920s, or a more subdued and austere era?
Tracey Scoffield, co-founder of Turbine Studios who co-produced the Steve McQueen film Small Ax series of films with Emu Films, BBC and Amazon Studios, believes that there is a risk of writing something that quickly becomes dated, as the pandemic is always changing and changing. “People are hesitant about how to tackle it,” says the producer, noting that the project she hopes to work on is “a bit of science fiction, set in the real world but slightly in the future.” Scoffield adds: “It’s a relief that I don’t have to think about how we factor in the post-pandemic world in the story.”
Another way to avoid the pandemic is to take the route of period drama. Rather than 19th century beanies and breeches, there is a distinct emphasis on what Brown describes as “near period” shows. These are dramas that take place in the life of an adult audience, like the ’80s or’ 90s, like Russell T Davies’ It’s a sin did it successfully. Recreating this pre-digital era onscreen allows adults and young viewers to reflect on how much the world has changed in such a short time.
If it’s not the near past, producers can always opt for an “unknown time,” Polter says, citing the film. Joker, which was a bit futuristic and retro at the same time. Other dramas, such as HBO Euphoria, are not specific as to where they are placed – making them look more universal.
All of the producers emphasize a greater focus on representation and inclusiveness in the stories they develop. âThere is an ongoing evolution towards stories that have never been told before,â says Jamie Campbell, co-founder of Sex education Eleven producer. Eleven recently hosted a Duly Noted Script Editing Program for creative development professionals from diverse ethnic backgrounds.
âAn important part of our goal is to work with people whose stories haven’t been portrayed in the past and whose stories, ultimately, are some of the most exciting you can possibly tell,â said Campbell. , citing a project Eleven is currently developing, a crime drama based on real events set in South Africa with an all-non-white cast.
A climate of change
Another focus is the environment, as the pandemic has raised questions about humanity’s relationship with nature. Mieli notes that young audiences in particular are keenly aware that climate change threatens the very existence of the world they grow up in. They partly need to be relieved of this, with funny and entertaining dramas. But they also seek out stories about climate change that are ‘non-educational’, that give them a sense of purpose and representation. âIf I were a series creator, I would spend all my time thinking about it,â Mieli says.
Nina Maag, head of premium streaming content at Bavaria Fiction, said her development roster has “definitely” changed over the past year, with a focus on breakout projects such as the reboot from a science fiction series. Orion as well as fantasy, comedy and black crime. âViewers want to be taken on a dramatic adventure and entertained with strong, imaginative stories,â she says.
Mario Gianani, co-founder of My brilliant friend co-producer Wildside, says the pandemic has been an âacceleratorâ for some projects he has developed. Among them is a series about Audrey Hepburn – nÃ©e Audrey Ruston – written by Jacqueline Hoyt (The Underground Railroad). Starting with Ruston’s youth who grew up in the Nazi-occupied Netherlands, Gianani describes it as a story of resilience followed by success, which may appeal to contemporary audiences. Gianani is also working on a topical project on “Technology and the New World Order”, a project where access to health care plays a crucial role.
Wildside and The Apartment are both part of Fremantle, and with the backing of the super-indie group, they independently fund development before going to broadcasters and platforms with a well-established project. This development model has become popular in recent years, with freelancers paying to commission scripts so that they can bring fully formed ideas to market, giving them greater traction with buyers. Campbell says Eleven also attracted top talent – whether acting or directing – at an early stage.
Shape is also a key factor. Tyler says the half-hour shows “broke through with audiences,” citing the success of Normal people and I can destroy you, and unlocked new ways to tell stories. Notably, both are longer term limited series (12 episodes) and dramas, rather than comedies that traditionally play at 30 minutes. âWe’re constantly discussing good form for something at an early stage,â says Tyler. 45-minute episodes are also an option. âYou can tell an appropriate story, but there is a lightness and freedom from the 60-minute requirement. “
For similar reasons, limited rather than complete series are a priority for many producers, aware that the format is ringing more and more with viewers reluctant to commit to long-running series.
There are a few differences between what buyers are looking for. A streamer like Netflix might more easily go for a high-profile sci-fi or fantasy project – in part because he can afford it – while UK public service broadcasters have stepped up their focus on top-notch shows. range that take place outside of London.
Ultimately, however, most broadcasters and streamers are looking for the same sort of thing, the producers say: high-quality mainstream success from a well-known or highly regarded writer. Unless, of course, if it is Covid-19.