MIPTV: BBC Worldwide Drama Boss Caroline Torrance on 'Demons' and U.S. Expansion (Q&A)

Courtesy of BBC
Caroline Torrance

The BBC's commercial arm is muscling up its links across the globe as it looks to expand its output and ramp up original drama with international audiences in mind.

Having just wrapped in Wales with almost an entirely British cast led by Tom Riley as the artist in question, Da Vinci's Demons, a production by BBC Worldwide Productions label Adjacent Productions for Starz!, marks a subtle shift in commissioning ambitions for the British player.

It is an example of the high-end TV production with large scale production ambitions that BBC Worldwide is distributing internationally and that L.A. outpost Adjacent put together for U.S. and global audiences rather than just for local British tastes in concert with its closer to home output.

BBC Worldwide director of drama Caroline Torrance spoke to THR's London Bureau Chief Stuart Kemp about U.S. partnerships, the market for traditional British stories and new players with partnership potential emerging on the drama scene.

The Hollywood Reporter: BBCW and Starz has a multi-year development deal running from L.A. and has birthed Da Vinci¹s Demons, a new historical fantasy drama series written by David S. Goyer.  How did that come about?

Caroline Torrance: That deal is for the development of two series. ­ Da Vinci's Demons is the first and there is another one yet to be decided on. Jane Tranter (head of Adjacent Productions) struck that deal with Starz.

THR: How do you decide on whom to work with and on what?

Torrance: We pick out partners on a project-by-project basis. It's all about getting like-minded producers together who have a similar vision for the project. It is essential that the partners have some kind of editorial affinity and you certainly don't want to undermined the credibility of any production simply by putting a financing partner above that need.

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THR: Is there a list of favored partners?

: We're always looking for new partners and we do have incredible partners who we have worked with and have been incredibly supportive of British drama over the years such as Masterpiece, PBS, WBGH and BBC America also. We've worked incredibly closely with them for so long. (There also are) fresh partners like Sundance and Hulu: people we are looking to build on our relationships with and do more projects with them.

We're doing a lot of business with Hulu. They just co-produced a series with us called The Wrong Mans, starring James Corden and Mathew Baynton. All the time the appetite in the U.S. for British created drama is increasing.
THR: What's the appetite like for British drama globally?

Torrance: The market for British drama is really good at the moment and has been better and better. There is a real enthusiasm for various drama and programming that we have been involved with. We are fairly optimistic about
the market.
THR: Can you describe your drama slate from a U.S. perspective?
Torrance: Thinking about our drama slate from a U.S. perspective and angle there are two elements to that. There is the drama we are producing and commissioning ourselves (Da Vinci's Demons, Orphan Black) and then we have the programs and series that we co-produce with America that we originate in the U.K. mostly through the BBC. We have The Musketeers for instance which is a new BBC One commission which BBC America is a co-production partner on. And then there's Call the Midwife, Sherlock and (Jane Campion's) Top of the Lake.

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THR: Has the American appetite changed when it comes to British fare?

Torrance: A few years ago there used to be quiet a resistance to British drama and British accents but now we're seeing more and more British actors playing Americans (think Damon Lewis in Homeland) and also there are more opportunities for our British actors to play British (think Johnny Lee Miller in as Sherlock Holmes in Elementary). I think there is a real readiness on behalf of American viewers to sit down and concentrate on listening to the British accent and enjoying it.

There is also a trend in the way US programming and British drama is evolving. For a long time Americans were doing 'story of the week' series,  ­ the sort of C.S.I. model ­ where you could dip in and dip out over 22 episodes each week and watch a standalone story be told over an hour. But now there's a change in viewer habits who are now looking for serial narratives. They store up a series on their devices and watch the whole thing from that.
THR: So is serial drama on the rise?
Torrance: There's a real appetite for serial drama and we've (BBCW) have always done serial drama with narrative running across all the episodes. With Top of the Lake, there was a real appetite to get involved in that and Luther [starring Idris Elba] has fantastic breadth in America.

THR: Jane Campion's Top of the Lake has multiple finance and production elements on it. Has there been an increase in the need to involve multiple partners to get things off and running?
Torrance: We are seeing the ambition for drama increasing as is the budget ambitions for it so we are always looking to bring in multiple finance partners. With Lake, that was a real jigsaw puzzle. It had big ambitions and a big budget because it needed that scale to be made to look like an international production. It has Elisabeth Moss and Holly Hunter in its cast and is directed by Campion so the level of ambition is there.
THR: At what levels does the need for partners kick in?

Torrance: These days to produce drama for a million pounds an hour you are really looking at drama what is more domestic in nature. Budgets above that really do need partners. At BBCW the important thing is to see if you can find somebody who is like-minded from an editorial position and wants to co-produce it with that in mind and it is also a good, reliable source of financing but also has a creative producer as well.

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THR: That must lead to interesting budget negotiations?

Torrance: When producers are working on a project and developing a project they always have an aspirational budget for it. If achieve that, fine, that's fantastic but you always need to be able to flexible and prepared to cut and alter budgets. Budgets aren't always definitive and you may have to scale back something to add something else.

THR: Is it still a case of the most money has the loudest voice for projects?

Torrance: I am trying to think of an example of a minority co-producer who ended up with loudest voice. Normally the originator of the project is the person who has the loudest creative voice. It's more than likely that they'll be on the project for the longest and will certainly be co-developer so those people have to look to have an equal voice.

THR: But you would avoid partners for partner's sake?

Torrance: We spend a lot of time brokering co-productions deals and from my experience at BBCW and before that with my time at ITV, I did learn one think. When it comes to the BBC, broadcasters and international broadcasters you absolutely cannot force creatives to work together, you have to ensure like-minded people end up working on the same projects together.

THR: What elements do you specifically look for when selecting projects for your slate of high end drama?

Torrance: In terms of distribution I think we are incredibly lucky because we have in the BBC a truly fantastic source of product. Writing, producing, directing and acting talent at the highest level we have all that. Great writing, producing, directing, acting talent is what you want to work with and that is always the aim.

THR: What trends are emerging for this year's MIPTV?

Torrance: We've got fantastic crime series which always sell really really well whether they are serial narratives (such as Luther) and we have some softer types of drama like Death In Paradise or Father Brown that also are very successful.

THR: What drama trends in the international market place do you see emerging?

Torrance: In terms of programming there is a seemingly insatiable appetite for crime shows. At the one end of the spectrum as I said there's the softer, gentler dramas such as Death in Paradise and Mrs Brown and then there's Ripper Street and Luther with an equally harder edge. These serial narrative shows are part of a trend. Another trend we are really seeing is a blurring of the lines between film and TV talent. If you look across the slate we have a lot of film talent in TV productions, such as Quirk with Gabriel Byrne, or David S. Goyer, who was a story writer on Christopher Nolan's Batman films, writing Da Vinci's Demons.  Or Daniel Radcliffe and Jon Hamm in A Young Doctor's Notebook. There's a real desire for film actors to work on high end television projects.

THR: How important do you think the U.K. tax credit for high end TV production will be?

Torrance: It's really fantastic. It's long-awaited and hugely anticipated and will be a real boon to production. There are so many examples of productions that have left the U.K. to go to Europe and Canada to get tax breaks so this will mean they don't have to and will also attract productions to come here.

THR: Parade¹s End shot abroad despite being written by Tom Stoppard and starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Rebecca Hall and got support of the Belgian federal government's Tax Shelter scheme. Will the new U.K. tax credit go some way to halting such runaway productions?

Torrance: Obviously people will be taking a look at filming that here with the tax breaks coming in. Things that used to go to Canada will also be looking at the system in the U.K. After all, it makes no sense to put an entirely British cast on a plane to fly there at great expense to shoot a British story when the production can benefit from a tax system and not
incur expensive travel costs.

THR: Is the U.S. market place aware of the potential benefit to them presented by the introduction of the TV tax credit?

Torrance: I think they are. A lot of U.S. productions are looking at the opportunities for shooting in the U.K. For a long time they're filmed in Canada and while that will continue, the incoming system will provide a different opportunity for people.