MIPCOM: FremantleMedia's Drama Head on Developing Scripted Internationally (Q&A)

Courtesy of FremantleMedia International
Sarah Doole

The reality giant has upped its dramatic stakes with a spate of recent international acquisitions.

RTL’s FremantleMedia has been on a shopping spree lately, scooping up production houses in territories around the world. The company best known as the reality production powerhouse behind big global brands such as the Idol, X-Factor and Got Talent franchises brought on Sarah Doole in 2014 with the directive to dramatically boost their scripted slate. With an eye on expanding European dramas, Doole acquired Italian production company Wildside in August, a majority stake in France’s newly-created Frontaram just last month, and a 25 percent stake in the U.K.’s Corona TV in January.

Doole spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about the company's drama expansion plans and the challenges of running a global business.

You’re launching sales on Modus at MIPCOM, which is Swedish language. Do you think presenting Swedish to international buyers will be a challenge?

We’re in a really good place here at Fremantle, because we kind of pioneered selling non-English-speaking dramas in the last two years. We don’t really even think now what language it is in. If it’s a great story, we think we can sell it. We’ve had absolutely enormous success with Deutchland 83, our German-speaking show, it’s basically sold everywhere. It has opened the door to European programming. I was in L.A. five weeks ago and we went round to lots of the channels and network executives, and at least five of them said to me, ‘Why didn’t you bring us Deutschland 83?’ And I said, ‘Because a year ago you wouldn’t have even considered it.’ Which is the truth. They wouldn’t have considered a German show. Now [the cable networks] are on the lookout, really looking for standout addictive programming. It has opened their eyes to what audiences are keen to see. The same way the British audience five years ago wouldn’t have watched subtitles, and now it’s absolutely commonplace.

Both Modus and the second show you are launching, Capital, are based on books. Was this a conscious choice?

A book obviously has brand recognition, and people have already used their imagination if they’ve read that as a literary work so for the viewer you’re already halfway there. The real skill is that you can’t disappoint people. The adaptation has to be even better than how your imagination works for the books. You need it to feel very film-ic, and that’s why Modus works brilliantly. When you see it you’re entering a visual universe. And this is going to sound really trite, but TV is a visual medium and I think we forget that sometimes. The great thing about Modus, if you turn off the subtitles you will still understand the story.

The shows use local actors that are not well-known names around the world. Does this help or hurt?

We’ve done research on this last year. Big stars do help to sell it internationally, but for viewers it’s about the character on screen. And viewers care less and less about seeing a big Hollywood name. They would rather see a great actor bringing that character to live. And that’s one of the appeals of European drama. For example in Modus, [lead actress] Melinda Kinneman very rarely does TV. She’s a big theatrical actress, so even for Scandi audiences she’s not that well known on TV. For a European audience it doesn’t matter. In fact it adds to it.

There are some 400 dramas on screens now. Is there an overload of product or are we heading that way?

It’s a really, really exciting time. I think viewers are hungrier than they have ever been, they are willing to dedicate a lot of time to watching shows. What will change is that in the old days you delivered a show week by week, but we know a lot of our customers want delivery of the whole series on day 1. People are playing it out in all sorts of different ways. So we have to be able to supply virtually day and date now on our big dramas and sometimes that’s a challenge. You might be making an international version for various reasons, and that ability to feed the market on the same day that it goes out in its home territory is really important. It’s a challenge for our producers and our behind-the-scenes teams.

What then is the biggest challenge on the global marketplace for day-and-date delivery?

Sometimes on a drama you might have a different cut and that might be for music clearance reasons. Or, for instance, if you’re selling a BBC show, a BBC hour runs at 60 minutes of content because they don’t have any ad breaks. There isn’t a channel around the world that takes a 60 minute hour so you have to cut out 10 minutes for an international version. It’s not for any editorial reason, just format length version. That’s a real challenge because viewers will find that somewhere on the internet, by hook or by crook. So we have to be rigorous and make sure that we can deliver, and that takes a lot of planning. That’s a really crucial bit for drama. As a trend though that’s very exciting, because that means that viewers are hungry for those stories and it’s our job to fulfill that hunger and that we can sell it. It means that we are pre-selling dramas a lot more, and we are taking dramas out initially to the market at an earlier stage than we did before so that broadcasters, if they’re interested, can have that slot in mind to coincide with the home broadcaster. So I think that’s another trend.

What are your plans with the latest Fremantle acquisition of Frontaram in France?

It’s really early days with those guys, but we’re really excited because France is a massive market. Obviously we’ve done really well with drama in France, and we have a big sale that we’ll be announcing soon. So to have a production entity in France was always our goal for many reasons. There are fantastic stories coming out of France, they have that film-ic tradition when it comes to telling stories on TV, they’ve got great writers, and I think to have those guys as part of our global drama family is really exciting. We’ve got great production in Germany with UFA, with Wildside in Italy. We’re also looking at Spain currently.

So you will continue to grow your global drama footprint?  What is next on the agenda?

The next territory I’m really excited about it Australia, because I think we’ve got some fantastic drama coming out of there already. We make Wentworth, which has sold to 89 countries. And the brilliant thing is that we remade it ourselves in Germany and Italy. To have that coming through the family is really exciting. Jo Porter, who runs our Australian team, has one project in particular that I’m really excited about. It’s a really iconic Australian story that we are starting pre-sales at MIPCOM and I think it’s very co-produceable. We’ve already had interest even though we haven’t finished writing the bible on it. Australia is ripe because of its heritage of great writers, almost all of the Australian acting talent is already in Hollywood, and also great directors coming out of Australia. If we can marry all of these things and bring them home, I think we can then tell a story that resonates around the world.

How do you manage the global business with production arms across the world?

We have spent the last year developing a pipeline that runs at 20 pages. That’s all our shows around the world in development across the world in drama . We are tracking those on a daily basis. We talk to our producers around the world, sometimes daily, and I’ve traveled an awful lot in the last nine months, because for me it is about face-to-face interaction. We go to Berlin at least once a month, Scandi at least monthly or every two weeks, and we will be doing the same for France and for Italy. Three or four times a year all [teams] meet in the same room and that’s really exciting because we have 25 of our top producers together. We have co-production cluster groups, as well as co-development between Denmark and Germany, even one that is really wacky between Germany and Australia. So we do that each MIP and then we run a big meeting where they all come to London for 2 days and that’s about business, ideas, creativity, and just getting them to connect in a space that’s outside their daily work. When you get those creatives in a room it is so exciting because anything can happen.