Netflix and Amazon Studios have made waves by innovating and working with top international film talent. John Hazelton reports on the companies’ game-changing original programming.
Three-and-a-half years ago, when Netflix made its headline-grabbing entry into the original programming business by ordering - without the security of a pilot and at a reported cost of $100m - two full seasons of drama series House Of Cards, it was the sheer size of the commitment that caught the industry’s attention.
But the deal also suggested the US internet streaming service was open to material with non-US roots (the series was to be based on the UK political drama of the same name) and keen to work with talents from the feature film world (star Kevin Spacey and director David Fincher both also serving as executive producers).
Since then, Netflix and streaming rival Amazon, whose own push into original programming began early last year, have opened their doors even wider to companies and talents from the film and international arenas.
Netflix, now with 50 million subscribers in 40 countries, has ordered two seasons (with a third to come) of horror series Hemlock Grove from Gaumont International Television (the Los Angeles offshoot of the French film giant) and signed multi-series programming deals with Marvel Studios and DreamWorks Animation. More series with film or international pedigrees are in the Netflix pipeline.
Amazon Studios - whose original series are available to more than 20 million Amazon Prime subscribers in the US, UK and Germany - is getting drama Bosch from Fabrik Entertainment, one of the Los Angeles companies in Germany’s Red Arrow group. And Amazon’s latest round of series pilots includes several projects with notable film-makers attached.
Straight to series
Producers who are already working with Netflix or Amazon see the streaming players as direct competitors with US pay cable channels HBO and Showtime and basic channels such as AMC and FX, working on similar budgets and offering comparable talent deals. Where the streaming players differ from each other and from some of their cable rivals is in how they select and shape their original series.
‘I am a firm believer that the viewers are the best judge of whether the show is good or not’
Henrik Bastin, Fabrik
As it did with House Of Cards, Netflix has so far ordered its projects straight to series, bypassing the traditional pilot process.
In its deal with DreamWorks Animation, Netflix has gone further and committed to three-season runs for 13 animated family shows, many of which will feature characters from DreamWorks Animation movies.
Having that commitment, says Margie Cohn, DreamWorks Animation’s head of television, is “a great way to do very cost-effective production and to lure the best talent - because who doesn’t want to have a secure job for that amount of time and know their creative vision will reach fruition and not be cut off after a certain number of episodes?”
Amazon Studios, by comparison, not only orders pilots, it streams them online to the public and uses viewer feedback in deciding which projects go to series. While some producers and talents find the public voting system nerve-wracking, others welcome it.
“I really, truly love it,” says Henrik Bastin, CEO of Fabrik, whose noir drama Bosch won a 10-episode order from Amazon after going through the process. “I’m a firm believer the viewers are the best judge of whether the show is good or not. Countless times we’ve been in a position where we’ve produced a pilot or a script that we thought was something an audience would love but it’s been killed because of internal politics or a change of heart on programming.”
During production, according to producers and film-makers, both Amazon and Netflix are relatively hands-off.
“You feel more like you’re making a small independent feature than traditional television,” says Sharon Hall, president of film company Alcon Entertainment’s fledgling TV division, whose Hysteria is one of Amazon’s latest pilots. “This was a script we developed internally, Amazon read it and loved it and gave one round of notes and off we went. And they have encouraged us to break convention if we feel that it benefits the piece.”
World War Z director Marc Forster, who made his TV debut as director and executive producer on another current Amazon pilot, Hand Of God, has a similar story. “They were fantastic collaborators,” Forster says. “Before shooting we basically discussed cast but nothing creatively. They left me alone.”
In some ways, the streaming services and programme makers with theatrical and international backgrounds may be particularly well suited to each other.
Where storytelling technique is concerned, the practice of making entire seasons of a series available simultaneously for binge viewing - which Netflix has done with all its originals and Amazon is trying for the first time with comedy Transparent - has creative implications that should fit the abilities of film writers and directors.
Where corporate synergy is concerned, companies with international scope could make a good fit with the streaming services.
Bastin says Amazon was the right home for Bosch partly because the series is based on Michael Connelly’s bestselling Harry Bosch novels, “so Amazon being a big seller of his books was a great deal for both the series and also for the underlying IP”. But the deal also worked because Red Arrow is an international distributor and was able to invest in Bosch and retain the rights for the series outside the Amazon territories (US, UK and Germany).
“Amazon is a very interesting candidate for production and distribution entities like us,” Bastin says, “because we want to bring something to the table financially and retain a piece [of the project].”
‘Who doesn’t want to know their creative vision will reach fruition?’
Margie Cohn, DreamWorks Animation
Going forward, links between streaming services and film and international companies could increase as the former expand their international reach.
Netflix’s expansion this year into France and Germany has led the company to order Marseilles, an eight-episode series produced by Paris-based Federation Entertainment created and written by Dan Franck. In the UK, Stephen Daldry and Peter Morgan will team for Netflix’s The Crown.
As streaming services grow, they could use programming with a theatrical pedigree to help attract new subscribers. Cohn says of the Netflix deal: “The DreamWorks brand and the library was important because DreamWorks markets its movies worldwide and our characters are known and beloved.
“If you are trawling through a brand new service looking for content that might compel you to subscribe, knowing that a company you already have an attachment to is making shows [for the service] is a big advantage.”
Coming to Netflix
King Julien and Puss In Boots Animated family shows set to debut later this year that centre on characters from DreamWorks Animation features - the lemur from Madagascar and the cat from the Shrek films.
Marco Polo The Weinstein Company is producing this drama, shooting in Italy, Kazakhstan and Malaysia with an international cast including Lorenzo Richelmy and Benedict Wong, about the adventures of the 13th century explorer.
Narcos Wagner Moura and Jose Padilha, star and director of Brazilian feature Elite Squad, reunite for this 10-episode drama, produced by Gaumont International Television and set to debut early next year, about drug trafficker and politician Pablo Escobar.
Sense8 Due later this year, this sci-fi series, whose plot is being kept under wraps, is produced by Georgeville Television and marks the TV debut of Andy and Lana Wachowski, sibling directors of The Matrix and its sequels.
The Cosmopolitans Whit Stillman (Metropolitan) wrote, directed and produced this romantic comedy about a group of young US expats searching for love and friendship in Paris (where the pilot was shot).
Hand Of God Director Marc Forster (World War Z) makes his TV debut on this drama about a powerful judge (Ron Perlman) who suffers a mental breakdown and goes on a vigilante quest guided by what he believes are divine messages.
Hysteria A drama, written by Shaun Cassidy (American Gothic) and produced in collaboration with Alcon Television Group and Universal Television, about a neurologist investigating a strange illness - linked to social media - that spreads through a Texas town.
Really Comedy from writer-director-star Jay Chandrasekhar (Super Troopers) about four suburban Chicago couples trying to hold on to what remains of their youth.
Red Oaks Directed by David Gordon Green (Pineapple Express) and executive produced by Steven Soderbergh, this coming-of-age comedy is set at a country club in 1980s New Jersey.