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Damages and Bloodline creator Todd Kessler on Thursday talked about the changes in the U.S. TV industry, working with Netflix and the challenges of filming in Florida during a master class at Serie Series, the European TV summit held in Fontainebleau outside of Paris.
Bloodline premiered at the Berlin Film Festival to rave reviews. With an all-star cast of Sam Shepherd, Sissy Spacek and Kyle Chandler, it was renewed for a second season after its debut in March.
Kessler, who has perviously worked on network and cable shows and now with Netflix for Bloodline, predicted a shift to straight-to-series deals. “It’s trending that way,” he said, citing the influence of digital platforms such as Netflix and Amazon have with creating their own original programming.
Kessler scored his 13-episode deal based on the pitch alone. The team had pitched to nine outlets, including HBO, Showtime, FX and AMC, he said.
“The big networks, which used to be the only buyers, their level of importance is getting smaller and smaller,” he said. Each outlet would have had an impact on the series, including FX where his previous show Damages had aired, he argued.
“FX still has commercials, so aside from the fact that every 7 to 10 minutes the show is interrupted by a commercial, it means that we also have roughly 16 minutes less of story time per episode, so on Netflix we have a full hour and sometimes they encourage us to go more than an hour if an episode calls for it.”
The commercial-free structure gives the team more creative freedom, he said.
“With Netflix we approached the thing as a 13-hour movie. We got some amazing statistics back from FX when we did Damages. We were told that the average viewer – and this is going back to 2007, so it may have changed – even if they liked the show, only watched four episodes of the 13 and they weren’t even four episodes in a row. Which was very confusing to us,” he said.
On Netflix, Kessler was able to approach the story broken up into three acts over the season, instead of a traditional TV episodic format. “We feel the series is best experienced watching more than one episode at a time,” he said.
Bloodline, which ended its first season with a shocking death, is envisioned as a six-season story. “Every season will be a look at different relationships within the family. The first season just gets us to the starting line,” he said. “Now is when the series begins.”
The creative team originally pitched the story set in the Florida Keys because there has not been a series set there. “We thought, ‘Where is a location we haven’t seen before?’ There were many elements that resonated for us,” he said. “It’s somewhat lawless and isolated off the coast of Florida, and it just has a lot of legend to it. There’s a lot of lore to it.”
There’s also the darker side to the sunny island, including the influence of alcohol on those that live in a vacation destination, which was called into question by a member of the audience. Kessler said the constant passing through of fun and sun-seeking tourists can have a negative effect on the permanent residents.
Enticed by the unique location, shooting there turned out to be a challenge. “It’s a very challenging place to film because not much production has happened down there,” Kessler said. “And we realized why not much production has happened down there – there’s very little infrastructure, crew, and space to actually film. What there is is a lot of is mosquitos and there can be alligators as well.”
Writing in the film structure has also been a challenge for the creative team, he explained to the European audience, due to union rules. While the European shows shoot on fairly strict 8-hour day schedules due to labor laws, the longer working hours of 14 to 16 hour days do not make the shooting process easier, he said.
“In the U.S., it’s heavily governed by unions and there’s the directors’ guild, which is probably the strongest of the three creative guilds, has very specific rules about directors directing material that is written for their episode. It’s challenging with serialized storytelling,” he said, noting that he has had to call directors back months later for re-shoots or additional material if they want to move scenes or adjust the timeframe due to the rules.
Kessler said the traditional networks will need to make a shift to stay relevant, though no one can yet predict what that shift will be. However, the conglomerates that control them will continue to make money until the upstarts challenge them on live events, he predicted.
“Until Netflix or Amazon start to broadcast live sporting events and make big bids for Wimbledon, the NBA finals or the World Cup, the networks will always have a monopoly because people want to watch that live,” he said. “But I don’t know why those companies at some point won’t bid on those events, and that will take more of that network share away.”
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The Fien Print
William Jackson Harper