TV’s Global Elites: Meet the Top International Showrunners of 2019

7:00 AM 11/25/2019

by Scott Roxborough and Alex Ritman

Once relegated to working in semi-obscurity, international content creators are riding a streaming-age wave of demand for shows that are connecting with audiences from Mumbai to Mexico City — and they don’t have to play by Hollywood’s rules: "We can imagine almost everything and then we can see it realized onscreen."

39fea_showrunners-illo_W - THR - H 2019
Illustration by: Dave Van Patten

As the streaming wars heat up, the future of TV is now decidedly global.

The boom in international programming that's engulfing the small screen began, of course, with Netflix. With 50 percent more subscribers outside the U.S. (98 million) than within it (61 million), the streaming giant is ordering almost as many new series from abroad as it is stateside. In Europe alone the streamer has significantly increased the number of productions this year, with 221 projects — including 153 originals — in the works, representing a more than 50 percent increase on 2018.

This has led to a global arms race to secure talent, which in turn has translated into major career boosts — and windfalls — for creators of content overseas. And while international showrunners may not be seeing the paydays of a Ryan Murphy ($300 million from Netflix) or Greg Berlanti ($400 million to stay at Warner Bros. TV), they are nevertheless signing deals worth far more than just five years ago, when most would have had to settle for toiling in semi-obscurity on local terrestrial broadcasters. Amazon signed a $60 million deal with British Emmy darling Phoebe Waller-Bridge (FleabagKilling Eve); Netflix has inked multiyear development agreements with the likes of Spanish showrunner Álex Pina (Money Heist) and German duo Jantje Friese and Baran bo Odar (Dark); and Apple TV+ shelled out big to secure top Brit talents like Steven Knight (for the post­apocalyptic drama See) and Neil Cross (for lit adaptation The Mosquito Coast).

Accolades, too, have followed, both at the International Emmys — Money Heist won best drama last year, while India's Sacred Games competes in the category this year — and at the U.S. Emmys, which this year included some 40 nominations for shows created outside the U.S.

But things are still far from equal among writers in the U.S. and abroad. International showrunners typically have weak or nonexistent writers unions, less aggressive (and less powerful) agents in their corner and a production model that favors full broadcaster buyouts with zero backend. American-style writers rooms are still the exception worldwide — most of the talents on THR's inaugural list of top international showrunners write every single script for every show they make. Head writers and creators who earn full producer credits on their shows — the American definition of a showrunner — remain a rare breed internationally.

With global players pushing budgets ever higher — some of the Marvel TV series on Disney+ will cost as much as $25 million an episode — regional showrunners worry how they will compete by "making HBO-style shows on a BBC 4 budget" and how they can keep their below-the-line talent from jumping ship to the next Netflix, Amazon or Apple series that comes calling. "We're running out of people," moans one Brit writer-producer.

But the cosmopolitan scribes on THR's list — which was compiled based on input from producers, acquisition execs and content creators around the world — still feel confident television's global push will deliver more diverse, compelling and surprising TV as Hollywood finally broadens its horizons.

  • Pedro Aguilera

    In 2016, Aguilera's futuristic vision of a divided society, where impoverished 20-year-olds compete to be one of the 3 percent allowed to leave Earth to live in a paradise called "Offshore," sparked a trend for international dystopian dramas at commissioning studio Netflix, with series like Denmark's The Rain and Leila in India tapping a similar vein of socially relevant sci-fi.

  • Gary Alazraki, Michael Lam

    To make their comedy-drama Club de Cuervos — what Mexican director Alazraki and American writer-producer Lam call "Game of Thrones set in the world of soccer" — the duo teamed up with Californication producer (and soccer neophyte) Jay Dyer. The story of family, power and intrigue, which moves smoothly from laugh-out-loud comedy to heartfelt drama, launched Netflix's Latino originals explosion. Russell Eida took over from Dyer as showrunner on Club de Cuervos from 2017. 

    The series most discussed among fellow TV writers?

    Alazraki: Succession and Fleabag

    One industry trend I can't wait to see go away? 

    Lam: I'm not sure if I can't wait to see it go away, but I think there's a slight overreliance on superhero comic books as source material.

  • Manolo Caro

    A Mexican John Waters with (slightly) more mainstream taste, writer-director Caro has a knack for creating unconventional romantic comedies that dance on the edge of the absurd and mix telenovela plots with a sharp ear for dialogue and a stand-up's sense of timing. After a string of local box office hits, Caro's TV debut, The House of Flowers, which he wrote, directed and produced, became the top Mexican series on Netflix, which led to an exclusive four-year deal between the streaming giant and the Latino multihyphenate.

    The recent show I can't stop watching 

    Euphoria. Lately I don't have a lot of time to watch TV, but this show hooked me completely.

    How I know I'm not working in America

    My English doesn't need to be perfect to do the shows that I want to do. The world has changed and you can be in any country and still have a global impact.

  • Charlie Covell

    When Covell adapted Charles Forsman's cult comic The End of the F---ing World for Channel 4 in the U.K., she thought she was making a "small, niche" and very British dark comedy that, if she was lucky, would find a small audience and "a few nice reviews." Instead, the modern-day Bonnie and Clyde tale, seasoned with dry sarcasm, was picked up by Netflix, nabbed an Emmy nom and scored Covell a deal for Kaos, a new Netflix series billed as a reimagining of Greek mythology exploring contemporary gender politics and power.

    The writer-producer I'd trade places with for a day

    Damon Lindelof. And I would spend that day buying treats and congratulating myself for creating one of the most perfect TV shows in recent memory — The Leftovers.

    What Hollywood could learn from my way of making TV 

    Nothing. I don't know what I'm doing.

  • Neil Cross

    Cross cut his drama teeth on the Brit series Spooks and The Fixer, as well as a couple of spec scripts for Doctor Who, before getting dark and nasty with Idris Elba as a dirty, driven cop in the psychological crime drama Luther. The show, which wrapped its fifth (and likely last) season this year, garnered 11 Emmy nominations and one Golden Globe win (for Elba) in its nine-year run. Cross' full slate includes the limited series Because the Night, adapted from his own novel, for Brit network ITV, and upcoming Apple TV+ drama The Mosquito Coast, starring Justin Theroux.

    What Hollywood could learn from my way of making TV 

    For what it's worth, I believe writers rooms to be quite staggeringly inefficient. But I'm also aware this is partly a function of my chronic disorganization, my impatience and my desire to actually be writing.

    My most lost-in-translation moment with a U.S. channel or executive

    One day, deep in the Death Star corridors at Fox, I was breezily invited to "come meet Rupert." I theatrically shivered as if the temperature had precipitously dropped and did my (pretty good) impression of Gary Oldman's Dracula. At which point I was whisked away by a cluster of senior executives who suddenly started acting like presidential bodyguards. Swear to God, my feet didn't touch the ground.

  • Russell T. Davies

    Having resurrected Doctor Who from the doldrums in the mid-aughts, Davies holds something akin to godlike status in the U.K. This year he headed toward something more dystopian: Years and Years, a terrifyingly close-to-reality miniseries following a British family as the U.K. succumbs to populism and xenophobia. The series delivered middling ratings for the BBC and, later, for HBO, which aired it two months after its U.K. bow, but its brutally nihilistic view of the future, leavened by Davies' very British humor, made it a critical hit on both sides of the Atlantic.

    How the golden era of TV has impacted budgets 

    I've never made big-budget shows, so it's hard to staff small and mid-budget shows. I mean, good luck to those who can earn twice as much on a big streaming drama … but we're running out of people.

    How I know I'm not working in America 

    Significantly less testosterone.

  • Leonardo Fasoli, Maddalena Ravagli

    Any show that counts both Madonna and Ricky Gervais among its fans has to be doing something right, and gritty Mafia drama Gomorrah has been a mob-style hit, both for Sky Italia, where it draws more local viewers than Game of Thrones, and globally: The show has sold worldwide, including to SundanceTV in the U.S. The pair continued their crime wave with the cocaine trafficking drama ZeroZeroZero for Amazon, CanalPlus and Sky, which will appear in the U.S. next year.

    The recent show I couldn't stop watching

    Fasoli: Chernobyl

    Ravagli: True Detective season three

    How the golden era of TV has impacted the budgets

    Fasoli: Now we can imagine almost everything, and then we can see it realized onscreen.

  • Baran bo Odar, Jantje Friese

    Husband-and-wife writing team Friese and bo Odar broke the language barrier with Dark, a time-traveling mystery that plays like a German Stranger Things meets Donnie Darko. Netflix reports that 90 percent of the global audience for Dark is watching outside Germany. That cross-border success led Netflix to sign Friese and bo Odar to a multiyear overall development deal, the company's first in Europe.

    What Hollywood could learn from our way of making TV

    Friese: Don't underestimate the intelligence of your audience.

    How we know we're not working in America

    Bo Odar: The extras are way better in Hollywood than in Germany.

  • Mark Gatiss, Steven Moffat

    Practically royalty in British TV circles thanks to Sherlock, which they co-created, and their work on Doctor Who (Moffat was showrunner from 2009 to 2016, and Gatiss wrote nine episodes), the creative duo are now ready to unleash their latest collaboration, Dracula, a BBC-Netflix co-production. It sees Danish star Claes Bang (The Square) don the bloodied fangs of the famed vampire.

    The recent show we couldn't stop watching

    Gatiss: Succession. They're all so venal it's interesting to see which characters you like.

    Moffat: Just got into Schitt's Creek and rather love it.

    What Hollywood could learn from our way of making TV

    Gatiss: There's so much sensational U.S. TV, it seems churlish to comment, but there is great virtue in having a very small, tightly knit creative team with a vision.

  • Varun Grover, Vikramaditya Motwane

    Grover and Motwane brought a decidedly un-Bollywood aesthetic to Sacred Games, Netflix's first Indian original, mixing humor — Grover is a stand-up star in Mumbai — with a gritty look at capital-city politics. The show's reported $14 million budget for season two dwarfs anything seen on the subcontinent, but it's paid off — Netflix says it's the most successful show in India (surpassing even Stranger Things) and one of the streamer's top non-English titles worldwide.

    What Hollywood could learn from our way of making TV

    Grover: A lot of Hollywood works on surveys and research; we go more by gut feel.

    One industry trend we can't wait to see go away

    Motwane: Overdependence on data. Grover: When networks become greedy and keep extending shows, such as Game of Thrones going into multiple seasons, it kind of loses its charm.

  • Henk Handloegten, Achim von Borries and Tom Tykwer

    Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio are fans of this crime epic set in pre-World War II Germany. Public broadcaster ARD, pay TV network Sky and Netflix, which holds international streaming rights, split the bill for Babylon, which set a new high-water mark for a non-English language series with a budget of $45 million for the first two seasons.

    The writer-producer we'd trade places with for a day

    Tykwer: David Lynch

    Handloegten: Matthew Weiner, circa 2012

    Most lost-in-translation moment with a U.S. channel or executive

    Handloegten: The entire American dubbing of Babylon Berlin. Absolutely horrible. Please watch the subtitles.

  • Lior Raz, Avi Issacharoff

    Real life helped write the script for Israeli drama Fauda, with Haaretz journalist Issacharoff and former counterterrorist commando Raz using their eyewitness expertise to shape the political thriller, starring Raz as an Israeli soldier undercover among Palestinian terrorists. A critical hit at home and abroad — where it was the first Israeli series to be picked up as a Netflix original — Fauda is now set for its first international remake in, of all places, India. And the duo is filming their first English-language series, Hit and Run, for Netflix.

    How we know we're not working in America

    Issacharoff: When people are not politically correct, and they yell and curse each other and everyone's fine with that.

    What Hollywood could learn from our way of making TV

    Raz: In Israel, we work fast and with a low budget. Since we don't have high budgets, we concentrate more on the story and the characters.

  • Kim Eun-Sook

    Kim is a brand all her own in South Korea, where her slick and glossy rom-coms, featuring His Girl Friday-style banter, have become an indelible part of the local pop culture. The SBS Drama Awards, Korea's version of the Emmys, gave her a lifetime achievement honor in 2012, when she was just 39. Her latest, the 1900s period romance Mr. Sunshine, drew an 18 percent rating for local channel tvN, making it the fourth-most-successful cable show of all time in Korea. It was snapped up by Netflix internationally.

  • Steven Knight

    Knight's career in TV ranges from '90s game show sensation Who Wants to Be a Millionaire (which he co-created) to the 19th century gang warfare of BBC's global hit Peaky Blinders (director Michael Mann, the novelist Dennis Lehane and rapper Snoop Dogg are among the show's most rabid fans). The prolific scribe is following it up with the sci-fi dystopia See, starring Jason Momoa (for Apple TV+), and a new take on A Christmas Carol (for FX Networks and the BBC, producers of Knight-created series Taboo).

    Strangest note from a channel or network exec "Can we slow the pace down a bit …?"

    The best piece of writing advice I ever received "Finish it, then make it better" (from Stephen Frears).

  • Daniel Levy

    The slow-burn comedy features a Canadian father-and-son dream team (dad Eugene Levy, who executive produces and stars, is an SCTV comedy legend, while son Dan is a former MTV Canada host). It won over critics in its fifth, and penultimate, season, earning four Emmy nominations (the sixth season debuts in January). Showrunner and star Dan Levy will segue from the show to ABC Studios, where he has signed a three-year production and development deal.


  • Carlos Montero, Dario Madrona

    Season two of Elite, Madrona and Montero's high school thriller that pits a trio of working-class girls against the rich clique of Spain's most exclusive private school, was watched by more than 20 million Netflix households within a month of its global Sept. 6 bow, according to the streamer. Netflix quickly ordered a third season of the addictive guilty pleasure, which plays like a mashup of Gossip Girl and Riverdale — with a lot more sex.

    The writer-producer we'd trade places with for a day Madrona: Greg Berlanti. Just to see how he does it.

    One industry trend we can't wait to see go away Madrona: TV shows as eight-hour-long movies.

  • Lisa McGee

    McGee's pitch-perfect rendering of Northern Ireland in the 1990s — Friends on the telly, Pulp Fiction on VHS, school canceled because of car bombs — became the single most-watched program in the country's history, and a hit over the water on Channel 4 in England, before Netflix picked it up and took it global.

    Strangest note from a channel or network exec 

    I've been told I need to show a softer side of female characters, which is infuriating. I was once told a scene between three female characters in their 20s on a night out was unrealistic because they didn't discuss boyfriends or the men in their lives. A male director once rewrote something of mine to include an unnecessary sex scene and female nudity. Thank God things have changed!

    One industry trend I can't wait to see go away

    Rape being used as a plot device. A script that explores the trauma of rape is, of course, completely different. I'm talking about rape being used to move story forward or to shock … Seriously, we can do better.

  • Jed Mercurio

    Already a ratings magnet in the U.K. thanks to his long-running BBC procedural series Line of Duty (now prepping its sixth season), Mercurio enjoyed an explosive international break with Bodyguard. The Richard Madden-led police thriller about an Army vet who becomes embroiled in a major terror threat proved to be a smash hit both at home and abroad, giving the BBC its highest viewing figures — peaking at 11 million — since 2008, adding to Netflix's Golden Globe haul with a best actor trophy.

    The recent show I couldn't stop watching

    Drama: Chernobyl. Comedy: Fleabag.

    Most lost-in-translation moment with a U.S. channel or executive

    It got a little crazy when some people inferred an incestuous relationship between David and Julia in Bodyguard because in Richard Madden's Scottish accent they misheard "ma'am" as "mom."

  • Peter Morgan

    The 56-year-old royal whisperer managed one of the season's trickiest transitions when he replaced Claire Foy's 1950s-era Queen Elizabeth II with a 1960s update played by freshly minted Oscar winner Olivia Colman. Morgan plans to repeat the cast replacement trick every two seasons, giving him at least a decade before he has to address the scandal currently plaguing the Queen's youngest son, Prince Andrew.

  • Laurie Nunn

    Just a few years after graduating from the U.K.'s National Film and TV School, Nunn had the sort of debut most can only imagine, when her script for a teen comedy-drama landed on a desk at Netflix. Sex Education has since become one of the streamer's most popular shows (Netflix revealed it topped 40 million views in its first month alone). The second season is now in post.

    One industry trend I can't wait to see go away

    I'd love to see "female stories" just be "stories."

    Has peak TV peaked?

    No, I think audiences are looking to see themselves reflected in the stories they watch, and having more content means there's more opportunity for specificity and fresh perspectives.

  • Álex Pina

    The third season of Pina's twisty crime drama Money Heist smashed global records when it bowed on Netflix this summer — with 44 million households watching in the first four weeks, the best-ever result for a non-English-language series on the service. It justified Netflix's faith in the Spanish writer-producer, who inked an overall development deal with the streaming giant last year.

    The writer-producer I'd trade places with for a day

    Vince Gilligan

    How I know I'm not working in America

    We are fundamentally Latino. Our epicenter is always emotionally exaggerated.

  • Adam Price

    Genre conventions mean little to Danish writer Price, who rewrote the rules for political drama with Borgen, which became the most exported Danish series of all time, airing in some 40 countries worldwide. Price's follow-up, Upon the Storm, a story of doubt and betrayal among a family of priests, was a critical success — it won an International Emmy for star Lars Mikkelsen in 2018 — but did not grab a large audience outside Europe and failed to sell to the U.S. But in 2020 global viewers will be able to catch his latest, Ragnarok, an apocalyptic climate change drama based on the Scandinavian legend.

    How "the golden era of TV" has impacted budgets

    When I was a commissioning editor for Danish TV2 in the early 2000s, it would have been almost unthinkable that a Danish show would be airing in 70 to 80 countries on all the continents of the world. All of a sudden it's possible for us to finance big, international projects with broadcasters or partners from all over the world.

    Strangest note from a channel or network exec

    At some point, during the early stages of production of my new show [Ragnarok] for Netflix, we were discussing hair a lot … we were discussing the main character's hair more than the story. We thought of every imaginable hairstyle and even had some rather costly wigs produced before we finally settled at the strangely natural decision of using "the actor's own hair."

  • Sally Wainwright

    Having created gritty U.K. dramas such as Happy Valley and Last Tango in Halifax, Wainwright rolled things back a few hundred years for HBO/BBC's Gentleman Jack, an LGBT period romance based on the remarkable life of 19th century scholar, writer, traveler and landowner Anne Lister, regarded as the first modern lesbian. The show has already been renewed for a second season.

    The writer-producer I'd trade places with for a day

    I imagine Peter Morgan has a lot of fun on The Crown.

    The recent show I couldn't stop watching

    Chernobyl. You get beyond jealous. It just makes you want to raise your game.

    What Hollywood could learn from my way of making TV

    I think the U.K. is way ahead of the U.S. in the way it represents women in TV drama as real, characterful human beings, not idealized male constructs.

  • Phoebe Waller-Bridge

    Waller-Bridge is coming off an annus mirabilis, winning six Emmys for Fleabag and landing a $60 million deal with Amazon, which at this point would probably greenlight her shopping list. Add in BBC America's Killing Eve, HBO comedy Run (with BFF Vicky Jones) and her script polish on the new Bond, and it's clear Waller-Bridge is the new series queen, on both sides of the Atlantic.

  • Famous Fans and the Foreign Shows They Love

    The End of the F***ing World
    (Jon Hamm)

    "He came up and told me he loved TEOTFW," says Charlie Covell. "I quietly lost my mind and shook his hand far longer than I think is acceptable."

    (Henry Winkler)

    "He was my hero when I was young," says Lior Raz. "We connected after he watched my show, and we became good friends."

    Gentleman Jack
    (Mick Jagger)

    Says creator Sally Wainwright, "I suppose even rock stars have to watch telly now and again."

    Sacred Games
    (Shah Rukh Khan)

    "I didn’t think he had the time to watch it!" says Vikramaditya Motwane.

    (Barack Obama)

    "Idris [Elba] called me from the White House to tell me Obama was a fan," says Neil Cross. "This is the kind of place from which Idris calls me, and the kind of party to which I’m never invited."

    Derry Girls
    (Liam Gallagher — of Oasis)

    "Liam Neeson is a fan, but that could just be local loyalty," says Lisa McGee. "Liam Gallagher was a shock! Maybe all Liams have a thing for the Derry accent."

    The House of Flowers
    (Edgar RamÍrez)

    "Thanks to the show we have become friends," says Manolo Caro.

    (Sam Esmail, Mr. Robot showrunner) 

    "This one shook me up," says Pedro Aguilera. "He put 3% in his top?10 series of 2016, and that was pretty exciting."

    Sex Education
    (Kelly Rowland of Destiny’s Child)

    "My inner 16-year-old can die happy now," says Laurie Nunn. 

    This story first appeared in the Nov. 25 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.