No longer simply a refuge for a career in decline, serious TV drama is alive and thriving in the US as film talents including Kate Winslet and Martin Scorsese clamour to work on the small screen. But can this trend continue?

The rise of high-end drama in the traditionally lowbrow US television market-place has partly been the result of a rise in international and domestic demand.

International broadcasters have always looked to the US to acquire the kind of big-budget drama projects they could not afford to produce themselves. And in recent years, more and more US cable networks have been splashing out on brand-defining series such as HBO’s The Sopranos and AMC’s Mad Men.

“Every [US] network wants to punch through the clutter and find a show that stands out from the rest,” says Craig Cegielski, president of GK-tv, the television division of Graham King’s GK Films, whose first project is romantic adventure series Camelot.

But the high-end drama trend has also been fostered by the increasing willingness of creatives from the theatrical world — actors such as Kate Winslet, Al Pacino and Claire Danes as well as director-producers including Martin Scorsese, Ridley Scott and Todd Haynes — to work in television.

‘There has been an explosion of phenomenal stories and characters on TV’

Craig Cegielski, GK-tv

That willingness stems in part from the Hollywood studios’ increasing focus on sequels and ‘branded’ feature projects which have less need of — or attraction for — A-list actors, writers and directors. In television, meanwhile, there has been “an explosion of phenomenal stories and characters”, suggests Cegielski. “There are great stories being told on television right now.”

At the same time, the perception of television as a fallback for theatrical actors looking to end their careers with a steady paycheck has changed. Now actors and their agents see high-end TV as a valuable opportunity.

“Not only is it great creatively for the client,” says one agent, “but you can also win awards, and that helps your profile in the business and creates opportunities in other areas.”

It has also become more practical for actors and other creatives to maintain simultaneous television, theatrical and stage careers. While a broadcast network series typically ties up an actor for 10 months a year — and for a number of years on the trot if the show is a hit — shorter run cable series leave talent with a six-month hiatus every year to work on movies or stage plays.

Greater rewards

From a financial point of view, feature films have traditionally offered bigger rewards to talent than television. But that too may be changing.

While $20m-a-movie stars are still unlikely to have their paydays matched in the world of TV, relatively well-known actors, who might make $1m a film in the newly-frugal Hollywood, are now able to make more than that doing award-winning cable TV projects. Such talents can now command up to $1m for a cable movie and up to several million for a mini-series, with the additional possibility of back-end payments through the awarding of points or producing credits.

It remains to be seen whether the conditions which have drawn so much theatrical talent into television persist. For one thing, the success or failure of high-end cable drama can be difficult to gauge. HBO’s $200m mini-series The Pacific reportedly averaged 8.1 million viewers an episode during its original run last May but DVD and syndication sales of the series — which were recently credited with boosting HBO parent Time Warner’s 2010 financial results — could in the long run be a more significant measure of the project’s performance.

Meanwhile, the success of some recent adult-oriented theatrical movies — seven of this year’s 10 best picture Oscar nominees had each grossed over $90m at the North American box office by the time the awards were handed out — could lead feature film producers and studios to be more competitive for the kind of talent drifting towards television.

Still, with a slew of big television projects in development or moving towards production, the high-end drama bubble is not likely to burst any time soon. Among those projects are Pompeii, a four-hour mini-series from Sony, Tandem, Peace Out and Scott Free; HBO and the BBC’s Marlene Dietrich movie, with Gwyneth Paltrow reportedly set to star; and HBO’s Phil Spector movie, with Al Pacino — a Golden Globe winner for his performance in the cable network’s You Don’t Know Jack — in talks to star.

Also in the works are two projects from some of the same names behind one of this year’s most acclaimed theatrical features. HBO recently ordered a pilot about a cable news programme to be written by The Social Network writer Aaron Sorkin and executive produced by that film’s producer, Scott Rudin.

And, in a move that sees the upstart DVD distributor and streamer making its first move into the original drama series world, Netflix is acquiring two seasons’ worth of House Of Cards, a US version of the UK political thriller series. Kevin Spacey, who executive produced The Social Network, is to star in and executive produce the Media Rights Capital series, while The Social Network director David Fincher is also executive producing and directing the pilot.

Small wonders


This King Lear-inspired eight-episode series set in the world of Chicago politics stars Kelsey Grammer as the city’s mayor. Produced by Lionsgate Television for pay cable network Starz, the series is written by Farhad Safinia, whose credits include Apocalypto. Gus Van Sant directed the pilot and is an executive producer.

Int’l sales: Lionsgate, Peter Iacono, managing director, international television

Contact: (1) 310 255 4961;


A new telling of the King Arthur story with Joseph Fiennes as Merlin, Jamie Campbell Bower as Arthur, Tamsin Egerton as Guinevere and Eva Green as Morgan. Produced by Ireland’s Octagon and Canada’s Take 5, with the UK’s Ecosse Films and GK-tv executive producing, the 10-episode series premieres on US cable network Starz on April 1.

Int’l sales: GK-tv, Katrina Matheson


Game Of Thrones

Said to be one of HBO’s most expensive series ever, this 10-part fantasy drama has an international cast including Mark Addy, Sean Bean, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Peter Dinklage. The pilot is directed by Tom McCarthy, whose credits include The Station Agent and The Visitor. The series debuts in the US on April 17.

Int’l sales: HBO, Charles Schreger, president, programming sales

Contact: (1) 212 512 1000

Hell On Wheels

Created and written by Joe and Tony Gayton, this recently commissioned series stars Cook County’s Anson Mount as a former Confederate soldier in post-Civil War America who goes west to work on the Transcontinental Railroad. The series was developed by Endemol USA and is being produced by Entertainment One for the AMC cable network.

European sales: Endemol UK, Cathy Payne

Contact: (44) 870 333 1700

Rest of world sales: eOne



Dustin Hoffman and Nick Nolte head the cast of Deadwood writer David Milch’s latest series for HBO. The series, now shooting and expected to start airing late this year or early next, is set in the world of high-stakes horse racing. The pilot is directed by Michael Mann, who also executive produces alongside Milch and Carolyn Strauss.

Int’l sales: HBO, Charles Schreger, president, programming sales

Contact: (1) 212 512 1000

Magic City

Centred around a swanky Miami hotel in the early 1960s, this 10-episode series from writer-producer Mitch Glazer is about to start shooting, with Jeffrey Dean Morgan in talks to star. Media Talent Group is producing for cable network Starz, which will begin airing the series in the US next year.

Int’l sales: Starz Media, Gene George, executive vice-president, worldwide distribution

Contact: (1) 818 748 4000

Mildred Pierce

Kate Winslet heads the cast of this five-part HBO mini-series based on James M Cain’s novel — famously shot for the big screen with Joan Crawford in the title role — about a single mother in Depression Era-Los Angeles. Todd Haynes directs and is executive producing with Christine Vachon, Pam Koffler and John Wells. The mini-series, produced in association with MGM, premiered in the US on March 27.

Int’l sales: HBO, Charles Schreger, president, programming sales

Contact: (1) 212 512 1000

Terra Nova

Steven Spielberg and Peter Chernin are among the executive producers of this pricey sci-fi series about an attempt to rebuild civilisation on Earth by sending a group of humans back to the age of the dinosaurs. Created by Kelly Marcel and Craig Silverstein, Terra Nova stars Jason O’Mara, best known for the US edition of LifeOn Mars, and Avatar’s Stephen Lang. Fox has ordered a full season and the series will be previewed this May before its full US launch in autumn.

Int’l sales: 20th Century Fox Television Distribution

Contact: (1) 310 369 1000

The Borgias

Created and executive produced by Neil Jordan, this Canada-Ireland-Hungary co-production stars Jeremy Irons, Francois Arnaud and rising UK star Holliday Grainger as members of the notorious family which rose to the highest circles of power in Renaissance Italy. The 10-part series starts its US run on pay cable network Showtime on April 3.

Int’l sales: CBS Studios International, Joe Lucas, Barry Chamberlain


Too Big To Fail

Events surrounding the Wall Street crisis of 2008 are dramatised in this HBO movie directed by Curtis Hanson and starring William Hurt, Ed Asner, Billy Crudup and Paul Giamatti. The movie makes its US debut in May.

Int’l sales: HBO, Charles Schreger, president, programming sales

Contact: (1) 212 512 1000