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'Dexter,' 'Criminal Minds' Writers Tell Europe How to Make Must-See TV

Michael C. Hall
Showtime
"Dexter"

As U.S.-European co-productions increase, top series showrunners see cooperation as key to success.

COLOGNE, Germany – It’s the story, stupid. That was the message some of the world’s top TV writers and showrunners had for European television talent looking to develop and produce drama series for the international market.

At a two-part workshop organized by Germany’s Erich Pommer Institute, writers and producers including James Manos Jr. (Dexter), Simon Mirren (Criminal Minds), Frank Spotniz (The X-Files) and Klaus Zimmerman (Borgia) shared their experiences in producing must-see TV for a global audience.

Pan-Atlantic produced drama series are on the rise, from Showtimes’ The Tudors, The Borgias and Episodes to Starz’ Pillars of the Earth and AMC’s The Killing, an adaptation of a Danish crime series. Several new international drama series are in the works, including spy thriller Hunted, which Spotniz is writing and executive producing for BBC One and HBO Cinemax; Zimmerman’s small screen adaptation of Luc Besson’s hit action franchise Transporter, which has just restarted production after several delays and which HBO, France’s M6 and RTL in Germany are co-producing; and a U.S. version of French mob drama Mafiosa, for which Manos will pen the pilot.

Just this week, Gaumont International Television, the L.A.-based production and distribution arm of French TV giant Gaumont, announced they were teaming up with Drive director Nicolas Winding Refn to bring the iconic sci-fi character Barbarella to the small screen.

European TV producers hoping to crack the U.S. market need to break free of the languid pace of most continental series, argued British-born Mirren.

“Start high, get to the action quicker, up your game,” was Mirren’s advice to his European colleagues. Mirren began his career writing scripts for U.K. series including Casualty and Spooks before segueing to L.A., where he has written and executive produced hit crime series including Without a Trace and Criminal Minds.

Spotniz agreed that there is still a wide culture gap between American and European models of television production. A showrunner is almost unheard of in European television and a writers’ room, in which several screenwriters collaborate on episodes of a series, is typically consigned to low-end daily soaps. Still, Spotniz believes the economic shift in television production means the future belongs to co-productions.

“The world is changing, it is now possible to do a show in Europe and sell it back to the states,” Spotnitz said. “Just a few years ago, that would have been inconceivable.”

Zimmerman, whose producer credits also include Tom Fontana’s period drama Borgia, which has been greenlit for a second series, warned producers that coordinating a series shoot over multiple territories can a legal, and financial, nightmare.

“Every country has their own unions and everyone has different rules,” Zimmerman said. “The contracts are incredibly complicated. The only ones who are certain to make money are the lawyers.”

But international success can also be simple, as seen in the example of Norwegian series Lilyhammer. Norwegian writer Anne Bjornstad and here husband Eilif Skodvin came up with the idea for the series – about a New York mobster sent to rural Scandinavia on the witness protection program – on their own and then pitched it directly to Sopranos actor Steven Van Zandt to play the lead.

“He loved it and said he wanted not just to star but to be a co-producer on the series and that we should take it out internationally,” Bjornstad told THR. “That’s how it all started.”

The first season of Lilyhammer broke ratings records in Norway and has sold around the world, including to Netflix, which bowed the series in North America. Nexflix has greenlit a second season of Lilyhammer, for which it will come on board as a co-producer.